Behind The Scenes,  Project Updates

“Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t” or, the joy and insanity of creative endeavour …

An action shot of Director of Photography, James Dene with Director, Sally McLean during filming (Photo: Perri Cummings)
An action shot of Director of Photography, James Dene with Director, Sally McLean during filming (Photo: Perri Cummings)

On the eve of our broadcast commencing for Season One of Shakespeare Republic, with Alan Fletcher’s episode going out tomorrow morning at 11am, we invited Director and series creator, Sally McLean to share with us her thoughts on the process so far and any lessons learned …

Before I begin, I would like to acknowledge all the creatives out there who are working their butts off towards their goals and dreams.  We here in Melbourne are blessed with a fantastic bunch of creative people in all areas of the Arts who are all still out there making stuff that keeps us entertained, enlightened and educated, often on little or no money and I am so grateful to know and work with many of them (although we could all do with being better paid, or paid in the first place, but that’s another blog post for another time).

“For courage mounteth with occasion” – The History of King John (Act 2, Sc. 1)

Thinking back over the past three months, I am frankly amazed at what has been achieved.  We have essentially brainstormed, scripted, rehearsed and shot six short films in the space of 12 weeks.  That’s two short films a month.  I know that we don’t hold the record on “most short films/web series episodes shot over 12 weeks” with that figure (I suspect Chris & Josh The Webseries hold it from their Season Two adventures), but considering that we made these episodes in our spare time on very limited resources AND it was Shakespeare text – I think everyone involved should be so bloody proud of their work.  I know I am.  Regardless of how it’s received when put out there, I am forever thankful to everyone who got involved in this mad idea of mine back in April and through our combined efforts, made it happen.

That said, it’s had it’s ups and downs.  Any project done on very little budget is challenging, particularly when you’re aiming so high in quality.  And no project is without it’s setbacks.  But, if you love the work as much as the team who came together to make this series do, you can pretty much overcome everything.

And the team is what made this project such a joy for me.  Those last minute panics to get the right equipment, frantic rushes to the supermarket to make sure people had something to eat on set, late nights planning, then re-planning, then planning again for a shoot, the endless call sheets and schedules and brainstorming how to work with presented ideas all by myself in my hobbit hole of an office (or bothering my partner and fellow producer, Billy Smedley, with ideas when he foolishly came home for more than five minutes, as well as bombarding our other Producer, Perri Cummings, with a stream of consciousness on the subject for the entire length of our rare coffee catch-ups), were all worth it from my perspective when standing on set laughing with the cast and crew and seeing what was in my head come through the camera lens.  I have thanked them personally on many an occasion, but I’ll say it again here publicly – they rock.  And roll.  And shine.  And none of this would be possible without any one of them being part of the process (or without Perri and Billy’s insight, patience and support).

And luckily, this process was collaborative from start to finish.  Initial conversations with each actor led to general ideas for settings and the context for each episode, which sometimes were altered, sometimes not, depending on the circumstances and our available resources.  It was a challenge for me working like this, no question.  Sure, there were some things that I insisted on, and it was a fine line to walk of being the person with the overview, but also allowing others’ creativity to enter the mix.  It was a juggling act, have no doubt.  It also meant being creative within the imposed confines of ideas that may not have been my first instinct, but it also meant that everyone truly owned their own work.  It also proved to me something that I didn’t think I could do … work with someone else’s script and input and make it my own as a director.  While I worried it may have been limiting, in a way it was totally freeing and I am very grateful for that new knowledge about my own abilities.

Now, neck-deep in the edit, I find myself missing that face-to-face input and sharing of ideas – now, it’s just me and a computer with the odd email conversation with the actor involved.  I find I miss everyone and all that back and forth.  Saving grace is the odd visit from the brilliant Sound Editor, Tim McCormick, whose ear I proceed to talk off every time he appears!  Perri and Billy continue to share ideas and thoughts, for which I am forever grateful, but nothing quite beats standing on a set surrounded by people you admire and respect and seeing the work form in front of you.

But, the actual filming is but a fleeting part of creating work for the screen and while I wonder sometimes if I’ve taken on too much with this project, I’m still finding moments that make me sigh with happiness or delight as I furiously put these images all together in some kind of narrative that honours all the work of everyone involved.  I found great joy during the filming process in the discovery that I had initially unconsciously themed the series with certain motifs that, once I realised, I would add into an episode if they weren’t already present.  I’ll be interested to see if any of the audience pick up on them (or even the cast and crew), but I know they’re there and that’s all that matters.  They are my “secret stamps”, if you will.  My own little nods to Shakespeare’s world and how it relates to the modern settings we have put that world into.

But first, and foremost, I knew that we had to be true to Shakespeare’s writing and ensure we drilled down as best we could to what he was saying about being human.

Many years ago I was fortunate to have as my Honorary Patron (and mentor), Sir Nigel Hawthorne.  Most remember him for his role as “Sir Humphrey Appleby” in Yes, Minister, but unless you were also an avid theatre-goer, you may not have known that he also played a lot of Shakespeare.  It was while he was rehearsing the title role in King Lear for the RSC, that we briefly discussed the idea of Shakespeare for the screen and what might work for modern audiences.  Doing a production directed by a Japanese director, through an interpreter, with very different aesthetics to the usual British way of rehearsing a play, on top of playing such a challenging role was difficult for Nigel, I think, but he was interested in how Shakespeare could be adapted for different times and cultures and was happy to share some thoughts with me at the time.  I also know that despite the initial difficulties in that production, he was very proud of the final product, as he should have been.

Sir Nigel Hawthorne as King Lear, Royal Shakespeare Company, Barbican Theatre, London 1999
Incognita Enterprises’ Honorary Patron, Sir Nigel Hawthorne as King Lear, Royal Shakespeare Company, Barbican Theatre, London 1999

Nigel’s approach to Shakespeare truly appealed to me.  I loved his attention to detail and his way of seeing the world and his work within it – something he brought to all his roles.  His notes on Lear and his conclusion that the character was suffering senile dementia were fascinating, and I think, right on point.  While Shakespeare and his contemporaries may not have had a term for that illness, it makes total sense to me to explain both Lear’s actions in the play and the reactions of those around him.  He’s not a tyrant, he’s a once-loved king losing control – due to fighting a losing battle within himself that becomes externalized through his (out-of-control) actions.  And I always respected Nigel’s way of clarifying why he made the choices he did – with innate intelligence, honesty and total integrity.

A good example of this was the criticism leveled at him once the show opened for not being “powerful” enough (in many reviewers minds) in the famous storm scene of Lear – but as he wrote in his wonderful essay for “Players of Shakespeare”: “All that ranting and raving may show you that the actor in question is jolly good at holding the stage, but you find out very little about the man he’s supposed to be playing … the king doesn’t dominate the storm; it dominates him … isn’t the impotence of the king at being able to drown the thunder more touching? I became more determined than ever to find the Real Person.” (Nigel’s capitalization, not mine).

That’s one of the things I loved about Nigel, he “got” it and wasn’t afraid to go against the grain of popular opinion on how a piece “should” be played.  Shakespeare wrote about human beings, not caricatures.  Whether you agreed with Nigel’s interpretation or not, you were in no doubt that he was playing a man overwhelmed by the uncontrollable forces of nature – giving us a living, breathing portrait of a man used to being in total control, who was no more.

During our correspondence, I mentioned my idea of finding a way to bring Shakespeare to modern audiences in bite sized pieces and Nigel thought it fascinating, but also warned me about the difficulty of finding a home for such a venture.  This was the days before the Internet became what it is and the idea of the medium of web television hadn’t even been thought of.  And so the concept was put to one side, but not forgotten.

Sadly Nigel has since passed away and is not here to see that idea finally take form over a decade later and what the amazing team here in Melbourne have created.  But wherever he is, I think he would be proud of us for finishing what we set out to do and remaining true to the original concept of bringing Shakespeare to modern audiences – without compromising the original work.  Going through his letters, as I have been today, one of his handwritten notes contained the following: “… you speak of ‘amazing teamwork, dedication, energy, enthusiasm – never say die!’  All those vital ingredients … led by a committed and indomitable spirit.”  While he was speaking of my extraordinary cast and crew on my first film A Little Rain Must Fall, I think that sums up our team for this project as well.  They are all committed and indomitable spirits who never say die.  And I am grateful to all of them. As I am to Nigel for his guidance early on in my career.  From the start, I have kept what Nigel said all those years ago firmly in mind and I know he had a direct influence on my choices when making this.  Keep grounded.  Keep real.  Play the person, not the part.  Be true.  Find the Real Person.

All good advice when directing (and playing) some of the most famous roles in English theatre.

Have we succeeded in what we set out to achieve?  I don’t know.  I like to think so, but that will only be known once we share it with an audience.  What I do know is that we remained true to our core and somehow this little ship called Shakespeare Republic made it to the shore.  Will there be a warm reception when we disembark?  Well, Shakespeare is tricky – you either love him or hate him.  And if you love him, you are either a staunch traditionalist or … not.  So, if audiences find us, there will be criticism, it comes with the territory.  I just hope it’s the kind that we can have an intelligent debate about – because THAT is one of the things we are aiming to achieve.  If we can begin a conversation about Shakespeare where we all learn something, then we’re winning.  And not just for us, but for Shakespeare and all who have played his roles and staged his works down through the ages.  Because if we’re talking about him in the wider public in an intelligent way, then we’re proving that he is indeed still relevant.

Ultimately, when doubt raises it’s slightly deformed head to give me a quizzical look of unease, I simply nod in it’s direction and send it this reassurance: “This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

Shakespeare, as it turns out, has some very good advice as well.

Sally McLean
Shakespeare Republic
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


Season One of Shakespeare Republic launches tomorrow at 11am with Episode One featuring Alan Fletcher as a modern-day Macbeth.

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Shakespeare Republic … all the world’s a stage …