In the cozy lobby of the Hart House Theatre, The Varsity sat down with two of the cast members from its newest production: Portia’s Julius Caesar. The play is inspired by Shakespere’s Julius Caesar, but takes on an “unapologetically feminist take” on the classic tale. In the conversation were the fantastic Whitney Ampadu — who plays Calpurnia, Caesar’s wife — and Athena Trinh — who plays Portia, Brutus’ wife. Both brilliantly imported their characters to a contemporary audience. Join The Varsity to explore what makes this production unique, its characters fresh, and its excitement palpable.
The Varsity: Hart House has done so many fantastic plays, but [it] often doesn’t have this unique, play-written glean to it. My first question was actually about the way that you as actors are making your characters.
Whitney Ampadu: Well, the writing, it helps a lot because the way [our playwright] Kaitlyn [Riordan] has written Calpurnia. [Calpurnia] is not — and not to diss the older works — but she’s not as passive as before. She is active in her support for Julius, and even after his death we see her take on a role, a persona that we don’t see in the earlier works. And [from] the beginning of the play, it’s like a whole 360 [degrees] for her.
TV: She grows?
WA: She does. She does. And it’s so fun to play it with a kickass monologue. Even as an oppressed woman in ancient Rome, she’s strong and bold and will do all she can for what she thinks is right.
TV: People often put Calpurnia and Portia against each other in characterization. Portia is always considered to be very active. She’s the one who stabbed herself in the leg, she swallows the hot coals. She is so adamant telling Brutus what she thinks and then you have Calpurnia who is like, “I’ll do anything for you.” I think it’s fantastic that there’s this sort of liveliness added to it. Did you find that there is a change in the way that Portia is portrayed, or the way that you would like to portray Portia?
Athena Trinh: I don’t necessarily think there’s a change in the route that Portia was already going on. I think Kaitlyn does a really beautiful job of digging deep for this character because after [the play ends], we don’t really know what happened.
I think Calpurnia and Portia’s relationship is such a beautiful balance of womanhood, of what it means to be a woman. We do have these juxtaposing positions of course, because we are our own people, and Portia and Calpurnia are their own people.
But I think it’s interesting how we can [use] their emotions, [use] their status. It flips our idea of what it means to be the ‘crazed woman.’ Because sometimes that can be seen as a weakness. But in the case of Portia and Calpurnia, especially the way Kaitlyn has written and put together Shakespeare’s work, really shows their growth and their strength, and using these things that we have and using how the world sees us.
WA: And it’s so open and intelligent, and we don’t see a lot of — or I personally haven’t seen a lot of — women in classical plays talk about their situation, the way they do in-depth, and openly.
TV: Do you find that Shakespeare is often contemporized appropriately? Is it enough in this day and age, to just do Julius Caesar? Would it be enough for you guys to just be Calpurnia and Portia on stage without it being reasserted in the way this production does?
WA: You know, I’m tired of seeing the same things when it comes to Shakespeare. Seeing casts that are not diverse, or seeing it not relate to issues we’re dealing with now, because it’s great entertainment, but then, why are we doing this? With theatre, I think the goal should always be to push forward, to bring new ideas and new perspectives — because that’s what we do with art. That’s the beauty of art, that’s the necessity of art. And with this play it’s just amazing to look at our cast and see how diverse it is, and to see things from a different lens. It’s not enough to just do the same thing.
TV: Do you think there’s a place in our day and age for a Portia as she’s been portrayed since the sixteenth century? Or do you think that our Portias have to be like yours?
AT: I think that’s an interesting question because it’s multi-tiered. I think the stories that Shakespeare told, he had the privilege of being a white man, right? He had the privilege to have his voice heard and stories told through his lens.
The reason why they’re transcendent is because they come down to the basic necessities of life, whether it’s love, friendship, what we need from each other. [We] can dive into the human condition; we’re able to transport ourselves to feel the rhythm in those beats — the heartbeat that’s behind the iambic pentameter.
Any show that we do is a statement. But it’s not to say that [we’re] going to switch up the lines; it’s still going to be Shakespeare’s words. Sometimes it’s not going to be how Kaitlyn changes and rearranges things. It’s going to be through the body, voice, and mind experience of [someone] completely different than if it were to come from me, or from a white male perspective.
We perform Shakespeare now, being able to tell these stories through unique voices. So putting a person of colour in Hamlet, or putting Whitney as Calpurnia instead of a white woman, putting me as Portia instead of a white woman — it says something without having to change any words.
This would be a completely different show if it was an all-white cast, but we have Yusuf [Zine] as Julius Caesar — that says something. We have Hardi [Zala] as Mark Antony — that says something. Being able to tell these stories and acknowledge the diversity that’s already in our day-to-day lives. It can still be the same words. It can still be Shakespeare, but it’s completely different coming from our mouths and our experiences.
TV: Do you see this production as the ‘words’ of Shakespeare? Is it still Shakespeare, at its core?
WA: There are a lot of texts from Shakespeare’s works, as well as Kaitlyn’s own words that she’s added. And it’s still that heightened text. It still lives in that world of heightened [prose], of poetry, of big feelings, images, and emotions. So I’d say it’s Shakespeare in that sense. And with that idea in mind.
AT: Kaitlyn’s really nailed that thing that Shakespeare had: that gut, that animosity, that juxtaposing gentleness. Without taking the credit away from Kaitlyn, she has embodied, chased fear, and like you said, heightened [Shakespeare] in some ways, and has really made it her own. And in her doing that, it gives us the agency to make it our own.
With Kaitlyn and [our director] Eva spearheading this whole thing, especially with the women in our cast, I feel like owning these words is so important because [these characters] don’t [normally] get the chance to have big monologues aside to the audience: deep pondering questions of twenty minutes asking “To be or not to be.” Because Kaitlyn claims this work, we’re able to — as actors — enter the work so easily, just like if it were Shakespeare.
TV: Do you think that for the viewers of this production, there’s going to be that opportunity to be like, “oh, I get Shakespeare”? Did she [help] you unlock the potential of Shakespeare’s prose?
WA: Absolutely. Working with Eva and Kaitlyn has been a great experience because I went to theatre school and I’ve done Shakespeare, but it’s still difficult. It’s hard to take on the language and the images and the world of it all. I’ve been able to really sit down and dig deep into the language and build the images in a way that others can understand. I really believe that when you bare it all on stage, it’s not hard to understand. We’ve been lucky to have [Eva] and Kaitlyn to guide us.
AT: And I think it ties back to what we were saying before, about the reason why [Shakespeare] transcends things. It’s because his themes come down to those basic things that all humans can understand. When we are on stage, and we get to fully do those intentions and fully feel those things, it’s so exciting to be able to share this with people.
WA: Come and see this play! It’s good. It’s interesting. It’s professional. It’s amazing.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Portia’s Julius Caesar plays at the Hart House Theatre from Wednesday through Saturday, until November 30.