by Paul Hansen 13 March, 2021
Amidst recent political turmoil, few plays could be more timely than Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar with its exploration of political intrigue, conspiracy, and mob violence. Shakespeare@ Home is presenting an exciting multi-episode radio drama of the play and its final installment will be released, appropriately enough, on the Ides of March (March 15) - the anniversary of Caesar’s assassination in the Roman Senate in 44 BC.
The talented cast of Julius Caesar features veterans of Broadway, the West End and Hollywood including Tony Award nominee Patrick Page (Hadestown) in the title role, Jordan Barbour (Broadway’s The Inheritance) as Brutus, and Keith Hamilton Cobb (American Moor) as Cassius. The cast also features Ashlie Atkinson (Mr. Robot, BlacKkKlansman) as Portia, Jonathan Forbes (Amazon's Catastrophe) as Casca, Thia Stephan (Gotham) as Calpurnia and Aria Shahghasemi (CW's Legacies) as Octavius.
The production is directed by Sean Hagerty, the Artistic Director of Shakespeare@, an acclaimed theater company based in Jersey City, New Jersey. The press release for the production states that after Shakespeare@’s 2020 season was canceled because of the pandemic, Hagerty “conceived the all-sonic performance project, Shakespeare@ Home, to recapture the great heyday of serialized radio drama of the 1930s and ’40s.” Shakespeare@ Home’s previous radio productions of Richard II and The Tempest were met with enthusiasm by both critics and audiences.
The sound design for this production of Julius Caesar is by the Emmy-winning team of Dan Gerhard and Ellen Fitton of Sonic Designs. Original music is by Joan Melton.
All of the episodes of Julius Caesar will be available indefinitely at no cost at www.shakespeare-at.org. Also available at no cost on that site are Shakespeare@ Home’s previous radio productions of Richard II and The Tempest. The performances are available as well on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Soundcloud, and Stitcher. It should be stressed that these productions are not just readings of the plays but complete sonic experiences filled with music and imaginative, sophisticated sound effects.
I posed some questions to Sean Hagerty about this production of Julius Caesar. Hagerty was awarded a Master's Degree in Shakespeare and Theatre from the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he graduated with distinction. He has worked as an actor, teacher, director and producer regionally and internationally for many years. Hagerty’s numerous credits include New York Classical Theatre, The New Vic, Theatre Royal Bristol, and BBC Radio.
Q: Why did you decide to present a radio play of Julius Caesar? Is there anything about the drama that you think particularly speaks to present times?
Sean Hagerty: Julius Caesar is one of those plays that always has something to say, to every generation. Over the past few years, and especially these past few months, it felt especially relevant with its examination of the dangers inherent between power and corruption, duty and ambition, and of course, the perils of a state divided. Given our current hostile and divisive politics, our fractured discourse, and recent events where we’ve watched our country slip perilously close to the cliff edge of democracy, I could not think of a more urgent play for today.
Q: Was there anything particularly memorable that happened during the production of this radio play? Were there any special challenges involved?
Hagerty: There are always challenges when we undertake a project like this. It’s a lot more complicated than I think an average listener would realize. We can’t just set up a mic and go. Some of the biggest challenges—and biggest rewards—come from the sound effects and our incredible team at Sonic Designs. We’ve spent hours going back and forth over a single set of footsteps, the murmur of a crowd, or on a more graphic side (it is a violent play), how a person’s head being kicked in should sound.
But beyond that, what was particularly memorable for me—and I think for our entire cast and crew—were recent events revealing, in violent detail, how relevant the play is. We had actually decided to produce the play back in September. Once our second production of the season, The Tempest was finished in October, we began working on the text, the music, and casting, for Julius Caesar. We weren’t scheduled to rehearse and record the actors until mid-January and then the assault on the capital occurred. Beyond the shock and horror of that day, it was unnerving to realize how close some lines and scenes, from a play over 400 years old, could still matter, could still parallel current events.
Q: I have heard people talk about the magic of listening to radio dramas in the 1940s. Do you think that only hearing a play can potentially create a more vivid theatrical experience than seeing and hearing it?
Hagerty: Shakespeare is so suited to an aural experience. His language lends itself to this format. Indeed, with performances in his time, the costumes, special effects, sets (if any), were very minimal. The actors and the language were the point.
I think we’ve become too habituated to our predominately visual culture (film, tv, YouTube, etc.) but once you spend five minutes listening your mind and imagination take over. There’s something truly wonderful, or as you say, magical, about it. It’s not passive, there’s an engagement required of you, much like a novel. Your imagination participates with us, and we, the actors, the sound designers, and Shakespeare himself, lead you down the road but you complete the journey. As Shakespeare says: “Let us on your imaginary forces work”.
Q: Is there anything in general that you would like to tell audiences about this production of Julius Caesar?
Hagerty: The cast and performances are just so phenomenal. We’ve got such a rich set of accomplished Hollywood, Broadway, and West End names that you would be hard-pressed to find together on stage in normal times—and for free! And honestly, a number of these performances are not to be missed. I spend a lot of time with Shakespeare, but there are scenes and characters from this play that I won’t be able to think of differently now, and that’s a credit to our actors.
Q: Would you like to share with us what your next projects are?
Hagerty: Well, like everyone, we are looking forward to getting back to live theatre. But Shakespeare@ Home isn’t going anywhere. The reviews and feedback we’ve received over this past year have convinced us this project is not just valued but needed. So our adaptation of Julius Caesar, along with our previous productions, will always be free and accessible to all at www.shakespeare-at.org as well as Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Soundcloud and Stitcher. And though I’d love to tell you what’s coming next, I’m afraid I have to keep it a secret for now. But if you want to find out, make sure to sign up on our mailing list or follow us on social media. It’s going to be exciting.