All-female ‘Caesar’ get to the points

Photo courtesy of PARCO theatre

Rena Matsui left the super-popular Nogizaka46 group in 2015, ending seven years as one of the top stars in Japan’s feted world of all-female singing, dancing and multimedia “idol” troupes.

In a recent zoom interview, though, she explains how that was part of her plan all along, saying, “I was determined to be an actor, so I decided to be an idol in order to get that chance.”

Growing up in Toyohashi City on the Pacific coast in Aichi Prefecture, Matsui developed an early interest in the stage through her mother’s love of the famous all-female Takarazuka Revue musical-theater company.

“Then, when I watched a DVD of Koki Mitani’s musical ‘Okepi,’ which depicts the goings-on and gossip between musicians in an orchestra pit, I was amazed what a great idea it was to show the entertainment world by focusing on people who are active away from the spotlight.

“So I realised that theater has room for unconventional ideas, and I wanted to be an actor using their own rich imagination to show invisible, intangible things on stage.”

Now aged 30, Matsui — who has been busy acting and has also written two novels since leaving Nogizaka46 — is taking her career change to another level as she tackles her first Shakespeare play, an all-female version of the Roman history tragedy “Julius Caesar.”

In this production — running through Oct. 31 at the Parco Theater in Shibuya, Tokyo, ahead of a nationwide tour till Nov. 28 — Matsui plays the pivotal role of the Roman politician and general Mark Antony, a follower of Julius Caesar (played by Sylvia Grab), the military hero and charismatic dictator who heads the Roman republic.

Rather than featuring lots of battle scenes, though, the director Shintaro Mori has condensed the original to focus on the arguments among Rome’s ruling classes regarding the assassination of Caesar on March 15, 44 B.C.

Hence the play opens with two of Caesar’s erstwhile supporters, the senators Cassius (Kio Matsumoto) and Marcus Brutus (Yo Yoshida), agonising over the way he is concentrating power as if he wants to make himself into a king. So to preserve the republic, the pair hatch a plot to kill him that soon gains wide support.

Then after the deed is done — with what history records as 23 stab wounds from numerous assailants — Antony addresses the senate calling for compromise and the plotters to be spared punishment, but Caesar’s appointments to stay in place.

Famously starting with the lines, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him …” — his speech in the play heads off an uprising against Rome’s aristocrats while also effectively nixing the plotters’ calls for reform.

“This is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays because I saw a great version by the Kaki-kuu Kyaku theater company in 2013. That, too, was performed by a cast of young women and they exposed the Roman power games in a high-tension, high-speed production staged in samurai costumes that was enjoyable and easily intelligible, too,” Matsui says.  

“Another reason I love this play is that it follows several ambitious characters one after another, whereas many classics just follow one hero or heroine. I also think it’s very exciting as the story goes up and down so quickly that it’s very contemporary.”

Meanwhile, she says the all-female cast didn’t feel any artifice about acting the roles of male Roman aristocrats.

“We don’t intentionally speak in low voices pretending to be men, and we don’t wear trousers, but simple dresses. So we look like women — but speak as male characters — and it seems very natural to me. As my first experience of this kind of casting, I actually feel to be acting as a human being, not particularly as a man,” Matsui explains.

“Also, I enjoy hearing all the intonations. Many characters change their attitude depending on who they’re facing. For example, Cassius uses different voice tones with Brutus for different purposes, and I almost laughed when I first heard that.”

Overall, Matsui terms this production a “genderless drama” — but she also sees differences due to the casting. For example, she thinks the way the mood of the masses — played by a female chorus — changes may be seen as a result of “womanly conformity” rather than “manly dominance.”

As for her own role, Matsui confesses it was difficult acting the part of Antony, who cleverly has Brutus and Cassius ostracised in his likely bid to reign over Rome himself.

“Many of the characters here say what they believe and act in line with that. Brutus, for instance, really loved and respected Caesar, but he killed him because he feared he was becoming a tyrant. So he had an unshakable belief,” she observes.

“However, I wonder whether Antony was really distressed about Caesar’s death, or was he just appearing to be sad as a performance in front of the Roman citizens. Tactically, he could have been saying the opposite of his true beliefs.

“It’s very difficult to understand Antony’s mental state, and my initial interpretations kept changing.

“Then the director (Shintaro Mori) advised me not to analyze it so intricately, and just to say the lines again and again. He said if I did that every day I would be able to ride the waves of the role, like mastering surfing. And now I’ve reached that moment and I’m just feeling the fun of being Antony.”

Also, by keeping Mori’s advice in mind, she says she tries to connect with the Roman general’s feelings through her movements as well.

“If I made a concrete acting plan for Antony’s famous public speech scene in advance, it would become superficial and rigid. So when I stand at the rostrum, in my mind I’m just speaking one by one to the public listening to me. That way, I sense the energy of the mass of people gradually building until it finally connects to Antony’s words and enables them to stand firm against the conspirators.

“However, it’s technically very difficult because I can’t look at everyone and make eye contact with them. So working out how to effectively talk to each listener on stage and also to each audience member over there — that’s the key thing.”

Now, with her Shakespeare baptism under her belt, Matsui says she wants to visit England when she can travel abroad after the pandemic.

“I had a plan to visit a friend who is studying there, but Covid-19 stopped that. Then the other day she sent me a photo of a statue of Caesar in Bath, so I want to go there and also do a tour of places in connection with Harry Potter.

“Ah, and of course I want to see lots of musicals!”

**** “Julius Caesar” runs Oct. 10–31 at the Parco Theater in Shibuya, Tokyo. It then tours to Osaka, Yamagata, Fukushima, Miyagi, Toyama and Aichi till Nov. 28.
For details, call 03-3477-5858 or visit