#TBB10 With Shiloh Coke, Actress & Musical Director of Donmar Warehouse’s Live All Female Production of Julius Caesar

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd, one of Donmar Warehouse’s trail-blazing, critically acclaimed Shakespeare Trilogy plays Julius Caesar comes to UK cinemas from Wednesday 12th July 2017. 

Julius Caesar depicts the catastrophic consequences of a political leader’s extension of his powers beyond the remit of the constitution. As Brutus (Harriet Walter) wrestles with his moral conscience over the assassination of Julius Caesar (Jackie Clune), Mark Antony (Jade Anouka) manipulates the crowd through his subtle and incendiary rhetoric to frenzied mob violence. There follows the descent of the country into factions and the outbreak of civil war.

The Trilogy has an entirely female cast, with actors assuming the roles of prisoners attending a drama group, and within this performing in three of Shakespeare’s most famous plays. One of the actors Shiloh Coke who has been a part of all three productions, in Julius Caesar has been cast as Rochelle, playing the role of Cinna the Poet. Not only does Coke act in the productions, she was also appointed Musical Director of Julius Caesar #TBB10 spoke to her about the highs and challenges of working on such a monumental production… 

1# Hello Shiloh, tell us about your character in this production of Julius Caesar

Hiya. Because of the nature of the trilogy, our production of Julius Caesar is performed by prisoners. Cinna the poet is played by my prison character Rochelle. So, without giving away too much for those who haven’t had the chance to see it yet, another prisoner had been cast to play Cinna the poet but had to be taken off so Rochelle stepped in as the understudy to keep the show going, really trying to do the role justice while reading from a script and acting out the fight choreography. Rochelle was thrown in the deep end but was up for the challenge.

2# How did you connect with your character – with so many versions of this story available across film, stage, TV and book which points of reference were the most useful? 

I knew the play well after having seen several versions of it performed either on stage or screen which was helpful to connect with the story and understanding its journey dramaturgically but for this production of Julius Caesar I also needed to have a clear understanding of who my prisoner was to connect with the play and access my characters through her. It was important to know Rochelle’s understanding of the story as well as how she connected to Cinna the poet and Lepidus.

3# What drew you to this production and have you played a role intended for a male before? 

I joined the project in 2014 with Henry IV at the Donmar and have been on this journey ever since. I graduated from drama school that year, and if memory serves me correctly, Henry IV was my 2nd audition as a professional actor. I hadn’t yet experienced my first professional job let alone played a character intended for a male before. Although I had the experience of playing conventional roles in Shakespeare plays during my time at drama school.

In my initial audition Phyllida (my director) explained to me that these Shakespeare productions are about being unapologetic, about taking up space and owning that space. Something we as women naturally tend to shy away from. I thought it was incredible and was one of, if not the main attraction to the production(s). That combined with the fact that I went through my drama school years seeing myself as the least likely to be in a Shakespeare production once graduating. There are so few roles for women in Shakespeare plays I thought being a black woman made my chance even less likely.

I remember watching an archive recording of Julius Caesar and thinking “I wish I had been a part of that”. Luckily for me the revival was my opportunity

4#  For some, Shakespeare is complex in his language and hidden metaphors etc. Are you well versed in Shakespeare or did you struggle to get to grips with it? 

In short, I’m dyslexic so the initial struggle was real. I naturally take longer than the average person to get my head round a script; understanding it… So after my initial excitement of securing the job for Henry IV, fear kicked in as I had always struggled understanding Shakespeare text. Fear vanished once I was sat around a table next to really talented actors who handle Shakespeare text with ease built from years of experience, a brilliant director and a Shakespeare Glossary by C.T Onions. Each day it became easier. 3 years later I no longer struggle with breaking down Shakespeare text. So rehearsals for Julius Caesar were a breeze.

5# What about the rest of the cast what’s it been like acting with a range of experienced and new talent – I know some hadn’t acted before?

Each and every one of the women who’ve been a part of this project and journey brought something different to the table, be it from coming straight out of training or joining the production through Clean Break. When I first joined the project in 2014, I was the baby. This time I was no longer “the baby”, had a few years acting experience/ growth behind me and had also gained the title and responsibility of Musical Director of the trilogy as well as acting in all three productions. This new responsibility meant adapting to leadership not just for me, but for some of the women who had formally seen me as the baby.

I grew watching and learning from the wealth of experience. I’m sure everyone experienced some kind of growth throughout the period. The trilogy was emotionally, mentally and physically demanding and required everyone to step outside of their comfort zone. Also as musical director I needed the women to be open to trying new things. Not everyone had musical experience behind them so that came with its challenges.

The cast of Donmar Theatre’s Julius Caesar

6# This is a groundbreaking project in that you worked with Clean Break as mentioned which is an institution that represents women in prison what was this experience like? 

Working with Clean Break was so vital to the process. This trilogy is about giving a voice to the voiceless, particularly women in prison who are often ignored and/or forgotten about. Acknowledging and remembering their experiences is what kept the trilogy authentic as they are the backbone to these productions.

7# You also play a mean set of drums in the production, are you originally a musician or… (don’t tell me you learned to play the drums just for this) also how did this concept come about…? (I really loved the way the music was used to soundtrack key moments…)

Thank you! Ha, no I’d been playing the drum for almost 2 years before doing Julius Caesar. I was new to the rock style of drumming though, I’m more of a funk drummer. My parents are musicians so I grew up around instruments. I dabbled but never considered a career in music. I enjoy being a ‘Jack of all trades’ with a passion for acting. I trained at Rose Bruford on the actor musicianship course and was taught how to be an even better ‘Jack of all trades’. I went there playing 3 instruments. Now I play 6. Rose Bruford is a great place!

Gary Yershon MD’d and composed the music for the original production of Julius Caesar. None of the music had been transcribed first time round and so through listening to archive recordings I tried to recreate the feel of the original production with the help of the incredibly talented Leah Harvey and Sheila Atim who were more than happy to put their own stamp and take on the music. At times I felt us slipping into our natural soulful/jazzy styles so had to tighten the reins a bit but that was part of the beauty of the process. We had a new sense of ownership over it. Recreating the music for Julius Caesar was without a doubt a highlight of the trilogy process!

8# Tell us a bit about your acting journey, how you got into it and why?

Performing has always been a passion of mine! I struggled focusing in high school so would skip school a lot. My drama lessons were probably the only lessons I’d always turn up to religiously and early. I loved it and knew I could only pursue a career in a field that I loved. So I went to college and studied performing arts. With the help of my mentor and tutor at the time Justin Pierre, the passion and determination to become an actor grew and with his guidance I got into drama school. The same drama school he’d studied at funnily enough. He taught me to believe in myself even if the odds seem to be against me.

9# What has been the most meaningful moment that you’ll take away from working on this project, from beginning to end till now?  

There are so many highlights from this journey I find it hard to whittle it down to just one in particular. Some of the most meaningful moments that I’ve taken away from this journey have been the learning process, the growth that I’ve experienced throughout this project, building friendships with some incredible individuals who I feel lucky to have worked with and lastly but possibly the most important of all was working with women in prison, hearing their story and feeling an overwhelming sense of responsibility to represent them to the best of my ability through these Shakespeare plays!

10# What’s next for you? 

Right now, I’m writing a play, working on a web series called CLOUT that will be produced by Black Shelf Productions, auditioning and trying to remember what it’s like to wear girl clothes after having lived in a grey tracksuit for quite some time. The jack of all trades life style never stops. It’s been a journey but I’m looking forward to what the future holds for me.

Julius Caesar, filmed live with support from digital commissioning body The Space, will be distributed by Trafalgar Releasing, and screened in cinemas across the UK from 12th July, 2017.

Audiences can find details of their nearest screening at www.donmarwarehouse.com.


Latest articles

Related articles