Behind The Scenes,  Celebrating The Bard

CELEBRATING THE BARD: Billy Smedley on playing Hamlet

Billy Smedley as Hamlet (Photo by James Dene)
Billy Smedley as Hamlet (Photo by James Dene)

We have mused on The Bard and now that Season One is airing, we are Celebrating The Bard!  This is a series where we asked each of our ensemble members to write down some background on why they wanted to do the piece they did, how they feel it relates to modern life, what challenges and/or choices they faced and why and any other information that would be of interest to you, the audience.  Director, Sally McLean, also shares some thoughts on the process from her perspective to give views from both sides of the camera.  Each “Celebrating The Bard” piece will be published the Friday after the ensemble member’s episode has aired.

INTERESTING FACT: The month of September marked a dark time for Shakespeare as it was the month his father and mother both passed away – September 1601 for John Shakespeare and September 1608 for Mary Shakespeare.  It is surmised that Hamlet was, in part, informed by John Shakespeare’s death.

(WARNING: SOME STRONG LANGUAGE … it is Billy, after all ;))

I first imagined Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi – The Thick Of It)  ripping the asshole out of a non compliant and incompetent minister with a not to be fucked up speech coming up, that the Party desperately needed him to nail. Of course blame and intimidation aren’t the most effective tools when it comes to  manipulating someone into giving an outstanding performance – but yes, initially it was the joy of doing something Tuckeresque with one of Shakespeare’s most important speeches.

Why did I choose this piece? I have to admit, already knowing more lines from this speech off the top of my head than any other speech had something to do with it!

But this speech encapsulates the complete works of anyone who’s ever known anything about acting in a single monologue. Everything about the story telling craft is specifically identified in it, from voice craft, to the egotistical pitfalls we’re constantly subjected to from actors in theater and politics (question time anyone?).

I hate bad storytellers showing off how hard they can cry –  be angry, or demonstrate whatever emotional state they think they should be inserted at that point of time. Human beings DON’T do that! It is intellectual masturbation and the realm of writers 😉 Emotion is a symptom of circumstance. If the actor is properly geared into the circumstance the emotions will take care of themselves.

It’s one of the main reason Politicians have such a bad rap. They are generally mediocre story tellers at best. You’ll get one toeing the party line and opposing whatever position their opponent has taken – but they’ll have tacked on their idea of disdain or whatever emotional state they feel will most effectively indicate how wrong the opposing argument is – and we can see that they are faking it!

Our current Communications Minister (no pun intended) is arguably the least most disliked high profile politician in the country – the reason – you’ll be hard pressed to catch him faking it. Simply, he gears into the given circumstances of his stories. He may or may not be familiar with Hamlet’s Speech to the Players, but he publicly demonstrates the lessons therein.

So I guess it’s the lesson that I’m passionate about. I’ve contemplated, were I ever to teach drama at a high school level, this is where I’d start. It’s all here. Hopefully I’m not caught faking it!

Billy Smedley
Ensemble Member/Producer
Shakespeare Republic


We love Billy.  Not just as an actor, but also as a person.  There are no doubts where you stand with him. He is always up for a challenge and he always calls it like it is.  He is also dedicated to his craft and always looking to push himself out of his comfort zone.  There is no sitting back and just going along for the ride with Billy!  He is routinely up front and centre, in the thick of things, particularly when it involves something new.  Or swords.  Or guns.  He is an action star in the making, which is why I was a little surprised when he wanted to do this piece in this way.  Not because I couldn’t see him doing it, but because it is possibly the most civilized way it could be done. A man, a suit, a silver tea service and a laptop.  And most of the piece done sitting down.  But that in itself was a challenge, I think and so off we went to see how it would unfold.

I have to put a disclaimer here – for those who don’t know, Billy is also my boyfriend (I’m not a fan of that word, makes me sound 14!) and we live together as well – coming up to seven years.  I also need to say that I am pretty harsh when it comes to choices around  my work, so his inclusion in this project was fully on merit.  Would it have made it difficult at home if I hadn’t included him?  Possibly.  But he’s as much a realist as I am when it comes to this business, so I like to think that he would have understood if it was otherwise.  But it also meant my navigating this episode differently to the others, as a result.  Was I harder on him than the other cast?  Possibly.  Did I demand more of him?  Again, possibly.  When you know someone as well as we know each other and have the high standards we both have, sometimes you can err on the side of avoiding perceived nepotism.  It’s not the first time I have directed Billy – we met on another web series I wrote and directed.  He loves to tell people it was on the casting couch – it wasn’t, we didn’t become a couple until six months later, but why let the truth get in the way of a good story! But this was the first time I had directed him as my partner.  Would I do it again?  Absolutely.  Billy is a pro – he works hard, is eminently directable and just loves the work.

Both Billy and I also share a huge appreciation of Malcom Tucker, Humphrey Appleby and Frank Underwood (in both the UK and US versions).  So his desire to place this piece fully in the world of politics with nods to all three characters was a joy and a challenge.  We had to make this Billy’s own, while using those worlds as signposts.  Above all we had to avoid imitation!  While it is the highest form of flattery, it is also not truly alive, in my opinion, or at least, not truly present.  And any actor, as Shakespeare points out so beautifully in this piece, needs to be alive in the moment to truly make their work a success.

And so, after a couple of rehearsals, we’d whittled down the essence of what Shakespeare was saying and let those aforementioned influences do what they were going to do – all the time both of us working towards Billy’s essence – who would he be in this situation?

While all this was going on, we were also looking for a venue to film. Fellow producer, Perri Cummings began the search while Billy and I were rehearsing and trawled through a myriad of suggestions and tips, while doing her own investigations.  Eventually, The Courthouse Hotel in North Melbourne and a photo of their Red Room came into her sphere, and before I knew it we were sitting down with the owners, Julie and Jason and discussing what was possible.  One week later we were filming in a truly beautiful setting that was perfect for the piece and I can’t thank Julie and Jason enough for their amazing support and assistance.  They are true champions of the Arts and I am so very grateful to both of them for all their help and enthusiasm.  I am also so grateful to Perri for her tireless efforts in finding us a home for this episode!  The relationship with The Courthouse Hotel blossomed into their also hosting and sponsoring our official Launch Night Party last month and I know that this is one of those relationships that will be ongoing and always valued between Business and the Arts – which is as it should be.

And so, the day of filming dawned and Billy stepped up into the role of Hamlet as Adviser.  He was suave, engaged and quintessentially Billy. Or, as I like to see it, an action hero as a political adviser.  Naturally, any work draws comparisons, but I liked this comment from a viewer of the episode best: “Since when did Jason Stratham do Shakespeare?” (which tickled Billy enormously for many reasons).

Our inclusion of Tony Abbot’s voice in the tag was our nod to the hypocrisy that creeps into modern Government, as well as a nod to the contents of the speech.  And it isn’t, sadly, confined to one side of politics.  Both of our major parties, if you go back far enough, accuse the other of what they themselves are currently doing.  It is frustrating that there is so much focus on petty point scoring, rather than good Government.  And we can’t just blame the media.  If the politicians didn’t say it and we didn’t lap it up, the media wouldn’t report it as they do, which feeds back into the cycle.  The fact that Mr Abbott has an unfortunate (or fortunate, depending on your view) habit of mispronouncing his words was just the perfect bonus for us.  That particular statement (made about the Rudd Government while the Abbott Government were in Opposition), also sums up everything that’s wrong with politics generally.  He accuses the former Prime Minister of doing exactly what he is now doing in that position himself.  Sigh.  What can we say?  It was a gift when coupled with this piece.

Would this work if dropped back in the play?  I like to think that it would.  If Hamlet was played as a favourite adviser, successor to the throne, if you will, who had to face the reality of his mentor dying in suspicious circumstances and was out for revenge – it could fit back into the play.  The beauty of Shakespeare’s works is that they can fit just about any time and circumstance, if looked at via the right lens.  As another viewer put it regarding this episode: “Presented like this – I’m actually getting it. Shakespeare was kind of ahead of his time me thinks.”

Indeed. As I said in response to that feedback, he was both of his time and ahead of the curve.  Long may he reign.

Sally McLean
Shakespeare Republic

See Billy’s episode below.  Just click the red Play button: