Breaking the mould

Jackie Clune and Jennifer Joseph on pushing boundaries in Julius Ceasar

by Amber Wilkinson

Jackie Clune, front left, in Julius Caesar:  I thought, ‘When am I going to get the chance to play Julius Caesar?’. How many actresses my age get to do that. I don’t know any. So it was irresistible really'
Jackie Clune, front left, in Julius Caesar: I thought, ‘When am I going to get the chance to play Julius Caesar?’. How many actresses my age get to do that. I don’t know any. So it was irresistible really' Photo: Helen Maybanks
In all the conversations I had with the cast of Phyllida Lloyd’s filmed version of the Donmar Warehouse’s all-female Julius Caesar, the idea of ‘breaking the mould’ came up repeatedly. Jackie Clune, who plays the title character, says that there are still battles to be fought for older women, even though actresses including Maxine Peake, Tamsin Greig and Glenda Jackson have all recently taken on traditionally male Shakespearean roles in Hamlet, Twelfth Night and King Lear.

The comic and actress who, at 51, is the same age as Greig, says: “I turned down other work last year that was quite lucrative because I thought, ‘When am I going to get the chance to play Julius Caesar?’. How many actresses my age get to do that. I don’t know any. So it was irresistible really.

“When you are playing those roles, you realise how paltry the roles that you usually get offered are. I have a joke with friends my age that every TV script I read, there’s a character in it that should be called ‘Hatchet-faced old bag’ because that’s all that there is for women over 40. There are some women doing great stuff but even scripts by women are sometimes disappointing for older actresses.

“As I’ve got older, the parameters change a bit. We’re hoping to break the mould and break ground for the younger women in this production. For them, it’s going to feel like an entitlement to have these great roles and that’s how it should be. But for us older ones, so the opportunities might open up for younger women but not for older women. Maybe this is the last taboo now, so that’s what I’m focusing on. I do despair at some of the negative criticism, although there was very little of it.”

She adds: “Watching it, I forget that we’re women, I just see story and characters. The only time you realise it is when there’s dialogue about what it is to be a woman or a man. Then I think it’s great because you’re looking at it fresh because it’s a woman saying this as a man.”

Clune’s co-star Jennifer Joseph – who plays conspirator Trebonius, who plots against Caesar – agrees. She says: “It takes a really brave director, because the backlash and the criticism can be quite unkind at times. You have to look where the criticism is coming from. The old boys’ school of criticism is mostly about, ‘Women cannot’ when actually women can but the men are still in that era where they don’t believe women should. Then you have the critiques of the people who say, ‘Why are you playing a man? Just be a woman’ but, for me, acting is just a wide variety of characters that you should be able to bring to light and let people believe what they’re watching.”

Jennifer Joseph: 'The old boys’ school of criticism is mostly about, ‘Women cannot’ when actually women can but the men are still in that era where they don’t believe women should'
Jennifer Joseph: 'The old boys’ school of criticism is mostly about, ‘Women cannot’ when actually women can but the men are still in that era where they don’t believe women should' Photo: Helen Maybanks
This production has a double layer to it, with the action framed within the setting of a women’s prison, with the prisoners taking on the Shakespeare. It was developed in collaboration with Clean Break, a theatre company and charity which works with women who have spent time in jail, in a bid to help them develop their skills. Joseph, 48, is living proof of how they help women to build a career. She spent time in jail herself, so has some experience of the environment and atmosphere the adaptation is trying to recreate.

The cast also spent time at workshops in two jails to help build their characters and Joseph admits it was difficult to go back.

“I’m not going to lie,” she says. “In the beginning, the thought of it just tore me up. It totally terrified me, because in my opinion, once I was out, I knew in my heart that it was a place that I would never be again. You quickly learn that women end up in jail by default, you don’t actually have to commit a crime, it’s ‘wrong place, wrong time’, association etc. Then you become less of a person, in my opinion, once you’re there. So, once you come out, I don’t see the mindset of why you would want to go back in. When you come out, you’ve got to build back and then you’ve got to pay it forward. If two out of 100 girls turn their lives around from you showing them what you’ve done, to me, that’s great paying it forward.

“The greatest thing about the Donmar and its set-up is that when we were going to the prisons, Phyllida was very sure about our anxieties, she noticed that. She allowed myself and Sharon Rooney to come down early, before the rest, and we had our own private tour, so that we could settle our minds. It really worked because while we were doing the tour, they had just come back from dinner and they were all excited to see us. We assumed it was Sharon because of My Mad Fat Diary, but when they came out of the classroom, they said, ‘We just saw you on Come Dine With Me’ – Phyllida nearly fell over laughing because it was so surreal and it really did open up how we felt and made us relax. It was still a little bit anxious going in and really sad but definitely worth it.”

Clune also says the experience was positive, not just for the inmates, but also for the cast. “We went to two prisons – an open prison and a closed prison – and they were very different experiences,” she says. “The open prison is fantastic, some of the people who work there are so inspiring. I can’t see why anyone would have a problem with that system because if our criminal justice system is about reform and offering hope and a future to women – and don’t forget most of the women aren’t in there for violent crimes, mostly its circumstance, violence, poverty, addiction – going in there and being able to work with the women was really life-affirming.

“That sounds so trite but it genuinely was and meeting some great women. When some of them came to see a performance on day release, I just saw one of the women singing along to a song that we’d taught them in the workshop and I just wept. She was so happy to be there and feel like she’d contributed something. We got an awful lot from those women, it wasn’t like a one-way street.”

For details for Julius Caesar and screenings, visit the official site.

  • Read what Phyllida Lloyd told us about Shaking up Shakespeare.
  • Read what Karen Dunbar told us about her role as Casca.

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