British actress Cush Jumbo captivated critics and audiences with her portrayal of Mark Anthony in the Donmar Warehouse’s all-female production of Julius Caesar. She tells TWIN about euphoric rage, Josephine Baker’s gifts and what it was like to play a Shakespearean hero… 

“I don’t get to spend hardly any of my jobs being aggressive, wielding a gun, killing people and starting wars,” Cush Jumbo says. “But I knew I had it in me.” The 27-year old actress unleashed her inner warmonger as Mark Anthony in Phyllida Lloyd’s recent production of Julius Caesar.

In case you missed it – not hard given its sold out runthen the important thing to keep in mind is that this production cemented Jumbo’s reputation as one of the most exciting actresses of her generation. All that, from an actress who before the play was more accustomed to bit parts in Casualty and self-produced plays above the pub.

But first: that name.  Once heard, never forgotten. Three syllables that exercises the mouth and sound more like good luck talisman. Perhaps it has been, because Jumbo’s path to professional accolades and burgeoning fame appears to be headed in a pre-destined, written in the stars narrative arch that sounds like a well-plotted play.

Growing up with her parents and five siblings in South London, Jumbo had to demonstrate an impressive blend of talent and tenacity to earn her spot at the prestigious Brit School for Performing Arts (her class mates included Leona Lewis and Katie Melua). Shortly after graduation, she earned a recurring role as Lois Habiba in Torchwood, garnering a respectable cult following in the process. And another actress might have been happy to bask in fame that afforded by television exposure but Jumbo decided to add an impressive array of weighty theatrical roles to her CV. Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Crucible, and the lead as Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion gave her the confidence to turn down TV roles and throw her lot behind classical theatre.  The gamble has more than paid off.

On a nightly basis, she’s had to summon Anthony’s brutal energy and deliver some of Shakespeare’s most resonant monologues to an audience more accustomed to hearing the words from a male lead. The anger Lloyd demanded electrified Jumbo’s performances. “At times when I’ve been out there playing Mark Anthony I felt a little bit possessed,” she says. “A little bit like my body is taken over by something else. I think that’s to do with how your body reacts in fight or flight mode. The adrenalin you get from producing rage is almost like a euphoric feeling.”

Lloyd directed a play remarkably free of gender expectations. “As a woman, if you play the lead or the strong character, you’re hysterical in some way, crazy or the vamp,” Jumbo says. “I’ve worked with a lot of directors, and if you do something too strong you’ll be told to pull back on the aggression, to make ‘her’ a bit more vulnerable because this is what people’s perceptions of what a woman should be in a play. But it was lovely to be in an atmosphere where instead, the Phyllida said, ‘Could you be more crazy? More threatening?’ I had some rage that I had the opportunity to tap into.”

An all-female cast playing male and female role seems to have caught the imagination of London’s theatrical producers, with other retellings of Shakespearean plays to follow in 2013. But before the play began its run, critics fished for gossip and behind-the-scenes tales of female rivalry. “In the first week, we had interviewers saying, ‘Everyone’s saying this isn’t going to work.’ which made us bond. Without being a pubic-hair-growing commune, it’s been a really empowering atmosphere. The play carried a lot of fear, because you don’t wanna fuck it up.”

Jumbo traces her personal breakthrough moment not to any recitation of Anthony’s “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech, but to an earlier show—one she wrote and produced herself. “When I was at a low stage, my mum said ‘I think this is what you need, to get yourself back, write something for you.”

Jazz Age dancer Josephine Baker, an early role model, inspired a biographical musical. “I remembered seeing a movie of Josephine Baker’s in French when I was about 7 or 8 and screaming for my mum to come in because she was the first woman of colour that I’d seen in black and white that looked anything like me. She was the same shade and had same eyes. Women of colour in those movies were always maids, but she was a glamorous star. I’d always meant to write something about her.” Jumbo produced the play over five nights above a North London pub, “I wrote it to put it on for friends and family as a kind of reigniting of my creative juices. Next thing I knew, I had all these offers coming in of people who wanted to develop it.”

Now, with critical acclaim and a newfound confidence, Jumbo plans to revive Josephine and I, her show— and in a neat case of happenstance Lloyd will direct. “It came out of a dark place, but turned into such a positive thing.”



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