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In the time since their 16th-century premieres, Shakespeare’s plays have supplied artists with seemingly limitless inspiration. They have been remounted, reworked, and reimagined into other art forms, including films, ballets, and symphonies; they have been transformed for every conceivable setting; and they have been designed to feature any thinkable configuration of cast and audience. Through it all, the Bard’s oeuvre keeps on giving. But what happens to Shakespeare in artistically limited times? UNC Charlotte Department of Theatre has asked and answered this question with their recent adaptation of Julius Caesar into a podcast entitled The Corona Caesar, which completed its debut online run on November 22. Directed by Robinson Distinguished Professor of Shakespeare Andrew Hartley, The Corona Caesar demonstrates that no matter the times or limitations, Shakespeare and his artists may still prosper.
The Corona Caesar exists as five brief episodes streamed over a week through free ticket access to a Sound Cloud website. The podcast, performed by a cast of 13 students, features excellent sound design by another student, Gianna Agostino. Each episode is only about half an hour, which seems to be an appropriate amount of time to enjoy this kind of focused listening experience.
Julius Caesar was a particularly relevant production choice for UNCC. To begin with, director Hartley is a world-renowned Shakespeare scholar who has recently published several books about Julius Caesar. Second, as Hartley points out in the virtual program notes, the play seemed especially fitting for this 2020 election year.
Julius Caesar's Rome finds itself in the midst of a power struggle, as well as an identity crisis, when the republic is confronted with the threat of tyranny (sound familiar?). When the play opens, Caesar has already become a cult figure, with plebeians chanting his name and lining the streets, ebullient to welcome him home from war. It is evident that Caesar has begun to view himself as larger than life and untouchable by fate (Ides of March who?). Performed by Dylan Ireland, Caesar speaks in a proud and declarative voice, scoffing at soothsayers around every aqueduct. Understandably, this begins to worry other civil servants such as the "noble" Brutus (Ren Bell) and Cassius (Drew Coley), who successfully conspire to assassinate Caesar in the name of love for Rome.
Of course, this is only one very simple interpretation of the plot; in fact, every main character in the play is a lot more complicated. Often times, Brutus and conspirators are not seen as the champions of democracy, rather as traitors, and it is Caesar who is sympathetic – when Caesar is murdered (in this production depicted through the sounds of slashing, heavy breathing, and the splashing of blood) and declares his famous, accusatory last words ("Et tu, Brute? Then fall Caesar!"), it is hard to know who exactly the bad guy is. When Mark Antony (Anthony Neal), Caesar's advisor, gives his famous, ironic eulogy that inspires mutiny in the crowd, it appears that he is out to avenge his friend at the same time. Antony is also the one who offered Caesar thrice the crown, in the first place, arguably in order to sabotage him. Thus, each of these characters requires complex consideration from both the audience and the actors.
In this production, it is hard, at times, to appreciate each one's complexity and contradictions, probably due to the platform. A podcast, by nature, limits the vehicles of expression for the actors: without body language, blocking, and facial expressions, they are totally reliant on the language and their choice of speech.
For this same reason, a podcast requires intense and focused attention, and this can be a challenge, especially for something as profound as Shakespeare. That being said, the emphasis on and attention to just the language of the play is rewarding as it gives the listener a chance to appreciate the play, specifically in its poetry. The actors are very successful in guiding the listener, both dramatically and emotionally (props must be handed to voice and acting coach Christopher Berry), and the podcast certainly leaves the listener with a lot to ponder.
Though there may be no clear protagonist or antagonist, what is evident is the susceptibility of the mob, which does not appear loyal to any ideal or ethic in particular, but instead, as King Henry VIII says in A Man for All Seasons, to "follow anything that moves." Of all the violence and tragedy provoked in Julius Caesar, perhaps the scariest (and most timely) phenomenon of all is, as James Baldwin would say, "the moral apathy and death of the heart" of the crowd.
With the proper context, the help of the actors who speak clearly, and sound effects that add drama and imagery, The Corona Caesar is an entertaining, unique, and effective interpretation of this masterpiece. The episodic concept allows for suspense to be built between acts, and it helps the audience avoid computer and listening fatigue. The Corona Caesar has been archived on Sound Cloud and is available to the public in its entirety.