When female and non-binary playwrights take their knives to Shakespeare’s greatest political thriller, Julius Caesar, there will be blood and conspiratorial thrills but also a comic romp.

CAESAR, presented by Brisbane’s La Boite Theatre, is a response to the Bard’s 1599 tale that transposes the original text on five actors who have come together to perform both the major roles and versions of themselves.

La Boite 2021

Caesar at La Boite. Photograph © Morgan Roberts

Bryan Probets plays Caesar, the patriarch, allowing investigation of contemporary ideas of masculinity and power. His fellow cast become cyphers, crossing between contemporary and Elizabethan language over the five acts: Chenoa Deemal plays Cassius, Giema Contini plays Brutus and Will Carseldine plays Marc Antony.

Antony bathes in his critical mentions: “’Go for the Shakespeare, stay for the hunky Antony’,” he says, reading a review to the assistant stage manager. “Wow. That’s so nice, don’t you think?”

Meanwhile Billy Fogarty, an actor who is non-binary, will appear in the first mainstage role of their career. Director Sanja Simić says of the young actor: “I was very interested in what they would bring into the rehearsal room from their lived experience; their contribution is invaluable.”

Part of La Boite’s ethos is to embrace gender and cultural diversity, and two of the five playwrights Simić has brought together for the project – Jean Tong and Megan Wilding – are also non-binary.

Wilding, a proud member of the Gamilaroi, is predominantly known as an actor (Blackie Blackie Brown) but has also been writing for the past few years. Each of the five writers, which also include Claire Christian, Merlynn Tong and Zoey Dawson, are responsible for one of the five acts.

The Julius Caesar production within La Boite’s CAESAR is a “sharp, contemporary, well-produced piece of theatre”, with Chloe Greaves as designer, Christine Felmingham on lighting and Anna Whitaker on sound.

The overlay of the actors rehearsing the work is “camp, chaotic, fun and very contemporary”, says Simić. “The Shakespeare purists are probably not going to be very happy with me, but I hope we’ll seduce them through the comedy and purely through entertainment.”

“There are tragic elements, for sure, but they are very funny women and non-binary folk and their way in, the way they attack and infect the work, is funny. They will move and challenge audiences. It’s a romp that will hopefully make people laugh.”

In turning this tale of tragedy to comedy through a collective of female and non-binary lenses, is there an implicit commentary in CAESAR that says the masculine world view, masculine power, is inherently violent and destructive?

“I think it’s leaning more towards the notion that the patriarchy excludes women and non-binary and minority groups,” says Simić. “The people who are excluded are given an opportunity within this work to rail against the system and to have their voices heard.”

Many artists have found the COVID-19 epoch difficult. How was La Boite impacted?

“We took a hit, just like the rest of the sector,” says Simić. “We lost a year worth of shows and a year worth of income, and we were incredibly lucky to receive JobKeeper and to get pools of funding that kept us afloat through the last year.”

“Then, we received RISE funding from the federal government last year, which meant that we could establish the Artist Company: we got 22 artists in residence effectively through that funding which has enabled us to do these shows.”

“Without it, we would be doing much smaller work. If you speak to the actors, they are definitely deeply grateful to be involved in the work but also in residence at La Boite for 18 months with guaranteed gigs throughout the year.”

Last year, Simić said in an interview: “I firmly believe in our capacity, as artists and arts workers, to make a difference in the world. Theatre, as an artform, is inherently political. The best work I have seen, both local and international, has set my heart and / or mind alight …”

Is being “inherently political” a priority for La Boite? “I think it’s one of our priorities. I meant what I said in that interview: yes, theatre and performance can be incredibly entertaining, but I also think as theatre makers we have a responsibility to really consider what we’re saying and who we’re speaking to and involving in our works and processes.”

How can the arts community find resilience to weather future storms?

“What was really reassuring during COVID was that we were so quick to adapt. We learned really fast out of necessity, so we have strategies and coping mechanisms now that we didn’t have 12 months ago.”

“I think we find resilience and hope with each other. Theatre making is a community, and collegiality and cross-artform collaboration and connection is what will get us through.”

CAESAR plays at The Roundhouse Theatre, Kelvin Grove, Brisbane, 23 July – 7 August