Last Friday, Hart House Theatre marked its 100th anniversary by presenting one of Shakespeare’s most memorable dramas with a reimagined twist. Portia’s Julius Caesar is a feminist take on Shakespeare’s poetic works about the political upheaval in early Rome. Created and written by Kaitlyn Riordan, the new-old play takes Shakespeare’s poetry from over twenty works and centres them around the perspectives of women and female actors who were silenced by political traditions.
To celebrate the opening of Portia’s Julius Caesar, The Medium caught up with Riordan, who is also a four-time Dora Award-nominated actress, to talk about misogyny, female empowerment, and the diversity in the play.
The Medium: Congrats on the opening of Portia’s Julius Caesar. Can you tell me why it was the right time to bring it to Hart House Theatre?
Kaitlyn Riordan: When I first met with Andrea [Wasserman] and Doug [Floyd] at Hart House, they told me that when it opened, 100 years ago this year, the only place women were allowed in the building was in the theatre. Thankfully a lot has changed since then, but being allowed into a place, like a government for example, is one thing, equality is another. Currently, of Canada’s 13 provincial and territorial leaders, only one is a woman.
By expanding who represents us, both in government and on our stages, we are able to envision equality at every level of our lives and the 100th anniversary of Hart House is the perfect time to embody that in that building, creating a new legacy for the future.
TM: Shakespeare’s plays had limited gender representation; what is the significance of bringing in female perspectives?
KR: I am constantly fighting for Shakespeare because I love so much of his writing. Why would I need to fight for the most produced playwright in the Western world you ask? Because as a female actor, my place in his works is limited. For my colleagues who are not white, it’s even more limited.
The significance of broadening the lens of his plays (and beyond just what I am accomplishing here) and fighting for more perspectives is about making a place for myself and the people in our community who don’t see themselves in his plays. They continue to get produced. Everywhere. And theatre is political and of its time, so if we’re producing Shakespeare’s works, they need to exist in the here and now to some degree. There is no cookie cutter version of how to accomplish that, but Portia’s Julius Caesar is one offering.
TM: What character traits do Portia and Calpurnia embody and how do they differ from each other?
KR: As the main characters, the have many classic traits of Shakespeare’s heroines: complex, brave, strong, flawed, vengeful, funny, determined and so on. They are very different women, with different struggles and desires, but they are best friends. And then one of their husbands kills the other’s husband. What then? I was curious about that moment.
TM: Were there any worries about whether the audience would accept two powerful female leads in a play that deviates from what Shakespeare has been known for?
KR: The evolution of [Portia and Calpurnia] was inspired by Rosalind and Celia, Lady Macbeth, Margaret, Goneril, Lady Percy, Kate, Cordelia, Paulina and many other non-submissive Shakespearean women and women in my life. The nine other new female characters in the play were similarly inspired.
TM: Brutus and Caesar are not as dominant in the play. How does that dynamic play out with their wives?
KR: Portia and Calpurnia are vying for empowerment; their husbands are not diminished by that. They want to be a part of the conversation around the things that affect their lives as all wives and husbands do.
TM: The Roman political landscape was tense and somewhat mirrors what is happening in today’s society. What socio-political issues are swayed by alternative factors?
KR: You’re absolutely right in saying that our society mirrors this one from Roman times. In the United States, we see our Western version of democracy being threatened by autocracy more and more every day. In Hong Kong, we see a citizenry who is fighting for their democratic rights against a superpower that wants ultimate control. Shakespeare shows us a citizenry which is swayed by charisma and not fact. Whoever puts on a better show gets their allegiance. The outcome, in Rome, was an Empire. The outcome for us, two centuries later, is unknown.
TM: There are many social and political issues pertaining to women in Portia’s Julius Caesar, particularly topics of choice. What impact do you think the show will have on audiences?
KR: Our hope is that the show makes us question who we put at the centre of our narratives and wonder about who is being excluded. I also hope that it proves that there’s room for so many more voices to take centre stage than we’ve come to expect; that we must demand a broader lens. We can do that by supporting the work that does that with our hard-earned dollars and time.
TM: Women are able to speak their minds and voice their opinions in Portia’s Julius Caesar which seemed impossible during Shakespeare’s time. What do you hope audiences will take from the show?
KR: I want audiences to wonder; what would I have done in Portia’s place?
Portia’s Julius Caesar runs until November 30.