Behind The Scenes,  Celebrating The Bard

CELEBRATING THE BARD: Ben Steel on playing Juliet

Ben Steel as Juliet ("Jules") (Photo by Shaun Herbertson)
Ben Steel as Juliet (“Jules”) (Photo by Shaun Herbertson)

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.


I guess I was really concerned by the whole marriage equality debate that has been around in the public consciousness for a while. So it just came to me one morning, Juliet. It’s one of the biggest love stories ever and I wanted to show people that, at it’s core, marriage equality is about love.  It’s two people loving each other.  So going back to Shakespeare’s biggest love story, and inserting myself as Juliet (who we affectionately retitled Jules) was, maybe, a cool way to highlight the issue. Then I had a look at Juliet’s balcony speech to see if it could work? There were a few things that didn’t quite, naturally, fit but I thought there was enough there to make it work in this kind of modern context.  Then I took it to Sal, and she was like Yes! Because of her vast Shakespeare experience she could see how to make it work.

I saw it as an opportunity to make a statement, maybe get some eyeballs on it, and maybe convert a few opinions out there. Lets get over this marriage equality thing and accept that love is love.

And, as Sal pointed out, men used to play the female roles so I guess we are going back to the original version, perhaps, in a way.

Initially when Sal had the concept for Shakespeare Republic the idea was to make Shakespeare, which can be scary, intimidating and inaccessible – well he comes with that kind of persona – more contemporary and more relatable to many different people and in particular younger people who’s only way into Shakespeare was perhaps year nine English where they had to read Romeo and Juliet or whatever, which was certainly the case for me. So this being at the core of the project, really helped with the tone and what we were trying to achieve with the piece.  And it’s certainly set in a contemporary setting, we use technology – with the webcam and some kind of internet chat going on, or interrupted chat, which gives Juliet the breathing space to prepare her thoughts which she may want to share with Romeo at some point.

Speaking in our own voices and finding the contemporary way into the ancient text was also part of that trying to reach a contemporary audience and make it more relevant for an Australian’s hearing it in Australian accents. Then because of the universal nature of Shakespeare, hopefully appealing to people overseas as well.

Shakespeare is for everybody and all those themes and all those relationships he understood are relatable to everybody.

What I want the piece to say is that love is love no matter your sex, no matter your race or religion and nothing should get in the way of that, not finances, people’s opinions, perhaps even borders. You know, love is love – come on people get over yourselves. I guess that’s what I want it to say.

Ben Steel
Ensemble Member/Producer
Shakespeare Republic
(Transcribed & edited from interview by Perri Cummings)


Ben and I had several conversations around pieces, and were actually looking at another speech for a while, until he came to me and said that Juliet was suddenly on his radar and could we do something with the balcony scene?  Which, I naturally said yes to immediately.  It ticked several boxes for me – men played women in Shakespeare’s time, so we were tapping into that theatrical history, and the idea of taking the greatest love story and placing it firmly in the middle of the current debates over marriage equality appealed enormously to my sense of social justice, but also, I felt, honoured Shakespeare’s own commentary on the subject of love and prejudice in the original text.  When true love is thwarted for no other reason than it doesn’t fit with long-held, unhealthy prejudices that have no bearing on the actual people involved, when love presents as a way to heal rifts, and yet is rejected because people are so attached to that divide and have let that divide define them and their place in the world – things end badly for everyone, particularly the two people caught in the center of the storm.

Once Ben decided this piece was the one he wanted to do, the conversation turned to how would we take one of the most famous Shakespeare speeches and put it firmly in a modern context.  Lots of ideas were discussed, with us finally going with the idea of a webcam/Internet video chat.  The idea of Juliet (“Jules” as we called him) waiting, mid-conversation, for Romeo to return to his monitor and deciding to use the time to work out how he was going to put to Romeo his feelings, but also acknowledge the obstacles and how to overcome them, really appealed to me.  Maybe because I was an early adapter to Internet technologies (I became a web designer in 1997 and was using video chat from around 2002 with colleagues around the world), I had experienced having a video conferencing call window live and open while I waited for someone to come back to the monitor because they’d had to take a private phone call or answer the door or whatever, mid-conversation – and how you can forget there is potentially another set of ears or eyes who may hear and see everything you’re doing while waiting for their return.

There was some conceit involved, in the sense that how would Jules not see Romeo come back? But Ben played it so beautifully that Jules was so intent and engrossed in working out how to put his case, that I felt it was conceivable that Romeo could come into the room through the door at the back on screen and not be noticed – thereby hearing everything.  I also like to think that Romeo is a bit cheeky (come on, he is obviously so from the play!), and would maybe not let his presence be known until he felt he had to say something because his own emotions have come into play in response.

Again, I directed this with the full play in mind – as I’m always mindful of whether these pieces could be dropped back into the full work with some dramatic sense.  If I’d directed the whole play for screen, I’d have let the audience see Romeo enter at the back of the room on the laptop screen, during Jules speech, and then step out of shot, so we know that he’s hearing everything – as per the text, but Jules is not remotely aware.  Why didn’t I do this for this version?  Logistics, really.  We would have had to schedule more shooting time and brought in another actor, and sadly, that was a luxury we didn’t have room or budget for.  But if I ever direct this elsewhere in a similar way – know that I would add that element!

This was Ben’s first time playing Shakespeare.  And I know he came to it with trepidation and yet determination to embody and understand what Shakespeare was saying and why.  We had the usual conversations around what certain phrases or words meant (everyone has had this conversation with me in rehearsals, regardless of their experience – as no matter how much you “get” Shakespeare, he still has the potential to floor you with words that we have no reference for now!), but Ben quickly grasped the context and the meanings and I had no concerns about his coming to grips with the text by the time filming rolled around.

And he did his homework.  One thing I love about all the Ensemble, which I’ve said before, is their willingness and ability to do their homework!!  As an actor, it’s one of the things I do without fail and it is such a joy to work with colleagues who have the same practice when I’m directing! It makes my job so much easier, for starters, but also means they are bringing their “A” game, which means win/win for everyone (including the audience!).

The other added joy for me on this shoot was working with two of my favourite creatives behind the camera – Director of Photography, Shaun Herbertson and Sound Recordist/Editor, Tim McCormick.  I love these guys – for their extremely high standard of work, but also for who they are as people.  In an added twist, everyone in the room (all four of us) are also part of the crew for my docudrama A Life Unexpected: The Man Behind The Miracle Mile.  Ben is my fellow producer and business partner in the film and Shaun and Tim are also two of our key crew on the project.  As Director for both, it was such a joy to be able to work with these guys in a different genre and with Ben in front of the camera instead of behind it.  It meant that the shorthand and rapport Shaun, Tim and I had already formed over the weeks and months of working together on ALU (which in Shaun’s case, also included travelling interstate with me for filming), translated effortlessly into our work on this episode, with input from Ben (but we kept that to a minimum, as he had acting to do!).  I cannot use enough superlatives of praise for Shaun and Tim for their excellent work, attitude and very healthy senses of humour and I am so very grateful they both put their hands up for this episode without hesitation.  Tim also went above and beyond in the editing phase and I truly could not have done it without him.  Thank you guys for everything.

I’d like to finish with this thought.  I’d like to ask our newly minted PM, as he’s obviously a regular viewer (we released Billy Smedley’s episode last week, pointing up Tony Abbott’s misuse of the English language, and our first episode with Alan Fletcher showed Macbeth as a politician debating stepping up and ousting a leader, then Monday night Malcolm Turnbull challenged and won the leadership of the Liberal Party … you do the math), to watch this episode with this message fully in mind:

Love is love.  People are people. Same sex couples are human beings, just like their heterosexual counterparts and should be treated exactly the same under the eyes of the law in this country – law that is secular in nature and function, not religious – for good reason (we’ve all seen what happens in countries run by religious law. Spoiler: it doesn’t end well). In this case, giving these rights to a group of people who have been discriminated against for too long, will take no rights away from anyone else – and the arguments that run contrary to this are, frankly, repugnant.

I know you feel this way already, Prime Minister Turnbull, so I am taking this opportunity to respectfully ask that you and your colleagues in Canberra agree on and implement legislation that brings marriage equality to this country asap, so we can all move onto the next thing that really is a problem and needs fixing. Let’s face it, there are so many things to choose from that we could be discussing and looking for solutions to that are really impacting all of us and our way of life as a nation, instead of the one thing that will cost us nothing to put in place (f done via legislation), make a large number of our fellow Australians feel included and acknowledged and that such a high percentage of the wider Australian voting public clearly support.

It really is a no-brainer on far too many levels.

While I’m at it – could we also have some money put back into the Arts?

Sally McLean
Shakespeare Republic

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