CELEBRATING THE BARD: Sally McLean on playing Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18
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.
CELEBRATING THE BARD – SALLY McLEAN ON PLAYING (AND DIRECTING) SHAKESPEARE’S SONNET #18
Today is a strange “Celebrating the Bard” post for me. I have consciously chosen to not go it alone as a rule with all the other episodes’ posts in this section – to continue the collaborative vein this whole series has been made in. Therefore I am so used to having another voice on the pages of these posts, that I find writing this akin to standing alone in a large field looking around and seeing only empty space where another human should be. It’s an odd feeling.
But that was part of this experiment for me – honing my collaboration skills as a director and also testing whether I had got any better at directing myself. The latter can be a lonely place to be.
On the first count, I think I did okay. There were things I would do differently, which is good, because it means I’ve learned, but there were also things that I think worked and worked pretty well. On the second count? I’m not so sure. I guess this is going to be a very honest post, as I’m also experiencing the feeling of “post-show blues”. That moment when a project is completed and suddenly there’s an empty gaping hole in your life, staring back at you, where once you poured huge volumes of creative activity and energy on a regular basis – but now, the project is done, set free and gone out into the world. Empty nest syndrome, of a kind.
SONNET 18 – LOVE POEM OR EULOGY?
Which brings me neatly onto the first thing I feel I need to address about this piece and why I made the choices I did. Why did I choose to set it in the circumstances I did? Why did I take a sonnet that is pretty much universally seen as a love poem and turn it into a eulogy – complete with scattering ashes at the end? Why? Good questions all.
For me, Sonnet 18 is still a love poem. Of that I have no doubt. But, it is my opinion, that if read carefully, you’ll see that it’s a love poem to someone who is now dead. And was young when they died. And it’s not necessarily a romantic love poem, although it can certainly be read that way, but it can also be a poem expressing love – maternal, filial, romantic, platonic, unconditional – and loss.
“Summer’s lease hath all too short a date”
“Thy eternal summer shall not fade”
“So long lives this – and this gives life to thee”
Therefore, I have always felt (and the dates seem to support it) that this poem was written by Shakespeare to his dead son Hamnet.
This is not just my opinion. Michael Wood in his excellent series “In Search of Shakespeare” also echoes my own thoughts on this sonnet, making a point of stating during the series that Shakespeare wrote this after the death of his 11 year old son, Hamnet (who died in 1596, possibly due to the plague). Academics have long debated the meaning of this Sonnet because of the estimated date of it’s writing and the fact of Hamnet’s death happening beforehand, coming at it from both sides. I had always felt when reading this piece that it was full of melancholy, with a dash of hope and almost defiance. It didn’t read like the usual love sonnet to me. Maybe being a poet myself gave me these ideas – who knows? But the moment I found out the timing of when the sonnet was written (after Hamnet’s death), for me, Sonnet 18 has always been a father speaking about and to a dead child.
Morbid? Probably. True? Who knows? Sadly Shakespeare left us no clues as to whether this was even remotely why he wrote this piece. But lines like “Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade when in eternal lines to time thou grow’st”, instead of the usual interpretation of “You shall never die because I have written an ode to you that will last for all time because I’m brilliant” (or similar), I feel, in fact, says “You will live on, never forgotten, because as long as these words remain and people can read them, you will exist and matter and have the full life that has been taken from you”.
Instead of being arrogant, as some have claimed in those final lines, I hear a person clinging to the slim comfort that their loved one who is physically no more will be remembered and “live” because they were written about. Really, I feel this piece should be read at funerals, not weddings, but it can, interestingly, work for both, which I think is part of the reason for its enduring appeal.
Ultimately, when I played this sonnet on the screen, I was playing it as someone who has just come out of mourning and is ready to let go. As a person who had lost someone dear to me, someone who was young, vigorous, full of gentleness and beauty when they died, but giving myself comfort in the knowledge that they would be eternally youthful and therefore remembered that way. And this piece of writing would at least preserve their memory and spirit in some way for the world. “And this gives life to thee.”
Sadly, I have a few people to draw on for this source, but I also suspect I was ultimately speaking to everyone I have lost, as well as saying goodbye to this first season and acknowledging Mr Shakespeare too.
WHY A SONNET?
Why a sonnet indeed. It is a question I’ve been asking myself through the whole process, and to be honest, if things had aligned differently, I would have been doing another piece – an actual character piece – that I had picked out to play when I first had the idea of Shakespeare Republic. But, as it transpired, one of the other actors choose the same piece and came up with a given circumstance that I thought was much better than mine, so I dropped the idea and chose another soliloquy. Then the logistics for the second choice became too unwieldy (venue issues, etc), and so I moved to my third piece – this sonnet. But I’m glad all of that happened, because I wanted a challenge as an actor and this piece certainly presented me with many. It was stand-alone – so no framework of a play to set it into, which, for me, was tough. It was an interpretation that I knew may not be popular. And it took two goes at shooting due to technical issues, so was the episode that got the most shooting time spent on it, despite being the shortest piece in the Shakespeare Republic Season One canon.
But, as I’ve said, I’m a poet and I love poetry. Also, through this process I have learned to trust that what will be will be. So it is what it is and I am so grateful that I was even in a position to try it out and have a play.
WHAT ARE THE THEMES?
While I don’t use a mobile phone in this one, or any modern technology for that matter, the theme of water is very much present in this piece. Water is life. Water is death. Water connects us. Every shore is connected to every other shore around the world and therefore connects all of us. As does life. And death. I was lucky enough to grow up by the sea and it has always been my solace. The place I go to think. The place I write my poetry. The place I just breathe. This piece became very personal for me on so many levels. Really, you’re seeing me very clearly in this episode – something I realised just now as I wrote that down.
The scattering of the ashes is tied to ritual, to cleansing, to renewal – “ashes to ashes, dust to dust”. To the circle. All those reasons why we scatter a loved one’s ashes after cremation at places that meant something to them and us. In this case, the rocky shores of a place that actually exists in Victoria, but could have been Scotland, Ireland, anywhere in Scandinavia – all places where I have my ancestral roots. We scatter their remains, so they can live on, in a sense, in a place that means something to us.
I WOULD LIKE TO THANK …
I would like to take the time to acknowledge and thank, from the bottom of my heart, the amazing crew who made this episode possible. Firstly, to James Dene for coming out to shoot the ep first time round that sadly didn’t make it to screen due to those aforementioned technical issues, but who has done amazing work throughout this series. To my fellow producer, Perri Cummings, who is a beautiful actor and talented director in her own right, who kept volunteering to help me with this episode and patiently let me go my own way when I said I wanted to try directing myself. She was one of the first to let me know how much she loved what I’d done once it was out in the wild and I am so grateful to her for being my best friend and for the inspiration, support and joy she provides.
To my partner in life and now work, Billy Smedley, for just being his normal awesome self. For coming out on set last Friday (when we shot this) to hold a diffuser for hours so my fair Scots skin wouldn’t burn in the sun (thereby getting his own Scots skin burnt in the process) and so the bright sunlight would be kind to me on screen. For the coffees, the laughter, the reassurance, the suggestions, the wielding of the behind the scenes camera (which you’ll see next week), the good humour, buying the lunches, dinners, drinks, coming into check, double check and triple check the tiniest changes to the cut upon my (insistent) request, his patience when I wasn’t sure about my performance, his hugs when I needed them and jokes when I needed those – just … for everything.
And to my fabulous creative team for this episode – Director of Photography, Shaun Herbertson and Sound Recordist/Editor, Tim McCormick. What can I say about these guys that I haven’t already said elsewhere? Well, anyone who knows me, knows I’m usually never short of words, so you’ve been warned.
Shaun is one of the most brilliant Directors of Photography it has been my pleasure to work with. He is creative, clever, has an extraordinary eye for detail, gauges the mood of a piece quickly and easily and knows how to translate that to the screen with consummate professionalism. Has the patience of a saint (which was proved on this shoot), a fantastic sense of humour and will go the extra mile to get the shot he knows will sell the piece. Credit where credit is due – I wanted to get a shot of scattering the ashes – he suggested the angle and framing. I wanted the wide shot of me on the clifftop – he found the vantage point. I wanted the shot of the sunset at a distance, he added the shot over my shoulder. I am so grateful our paths crossed on another web series “Chris & Josh”, where I was the actor and he the DOP, so I could steal him away to work with me on this and my documentary “A Life Unexpected”. His colour grade was perfect and his willingness to turn the footage around on a very tight schedule was above and beyond.
And Tim. Again, a joy. Tim has been the one creative collaborator who has been consistently working with me over these past 16 weeks (and again, on my documentary as well). And throughout the edit for Shakespeare Republic, he has kept me sane and given me a sense of connection during what could have been a very isolating time. I couldn’t have got through the editing phase without him and I most certainly could not have done the extraordinary job on audio that he has done. Tim is truly gifted at Sound work. He has superhuman ears, a brilliant sense of rhythm and nuance, is totally dedicated to his craft, has a wicked sense of humour and a never-say-die attitude. He works like a Trojan (as the saying goes) and sometimes I worry that he doesn’t sleep. The amount of late nights we have now shared from our respective separate studio spaces via texts, calls and emails getting each episode finished and out have just about become legendary, but a lasting friendship has also formed. I trust Tim 100% with his work – he always delivers and is always the perfectionist (as is Shaun, for that matter, as am I), so delivers 110%. Tim helped me enormously on the day of shooting with one particular line that wasn’t quite gelling for me. When I asked for guidance, he talked me through the section he could hear was disconnected in the speech in such a way that got me straight out of my head and back on track. His enthusiastic head nodding at the end of the take that we ended up using in the episode, while still holding the boom, was a sight for sore eyes from my perspective!
While I’m on the subject of Tim McCormick, I also need to point out that all the audio from this episode was shot on location. Now, that doesn’t sound like much, until I add that we were on a surf beach, with a 20kph wind and the tide coming in. Trust me, that’s loud. There was also a helicopter during the opening lines in the far distance that you can’t hear on the final cut (but you could before Tim’s sound edit). That’s how good a Sound Recordist and Editor Tim is. Genius.
Would I do a sonnet again like this? Probably not. Of course, I say this now and things may change, but it was a tough choice and I’d like to play with some characters again, I think. But I’m glad I got the chance to have a go and do this work this way. Did I achieve what I set out to with this piece? I told the story as I saw it, so that box was ticked. Shaun gave me gorgeous pictures to play with and Tim an amazing soundscape, so those boxes were ticked. As to the rest? Well, that I can’t say – the audience will respond as they respond. It felt like a bold choice for me and I’d rather play bold than play safe.
What I do know, is I felt the most relaxed and grounded as an actor than I have for a while, which surprised me, as the pressure of directing was also there. I can thank the team around me for a large part of that feeling of oneness with the text, but I also think there was a maturing for me as an actor/director that took place through this first season as well, which everyone on the series helped enable. I have been blessed to play with such wonderful creatives and to be so supported by so many of them.
Next time, however, I think I’ll play a comedy. So. Much. Easier!
Ensemble Member &
See Sally’s episode below. Just click the red Play button: