William Shakespeare. These words have the potential to excite and thrill an actor or strike fear into their heart. But actress, director and producer Sally McLean believes that this doesn't have to be the case. Shakespeare can be accessible for everyone, as she has set out to prove with her award-winning web-series Shakespeare Republic, and short film Speaking Daggers. This month, we welcome Sally to The Studio to teach her brand new course, Playing the Bard, which is designed to help actors understand and personalise Shakespeare's words. Sally recently had a chat with us about all things Shakespeare, so read on to find out why Sally loves the Bard, and how you can too!

Q. When did your love of Shakespeare begin?

A. I was one of those kids in school who hated Shakespeare. People often find that unbelievable, considering what I’m doing now, but it’s true. My first introduction to his work was in English class and sadly my teacher didn’t have a lot of patience with kids who struggled with reading out loud. I am mildly dyslexic, so you can imagine how much fun reading Shakespeare out loud in front of a class without having seen the text until that moment would have been! Needless to say, that was it for me – I never wanted to touch the works again. And I successfully managed to avoid his work – until I wanted to audition for drama school.

'I was one of those kids in school who hated Shakespeare. People often find that unbelievable, considering what I’m doing now, but it’s true.' 

I managed to somehow get through the process of choosing and learning a Shakespeare monologue (I chose one that resonated, and wasn’t too difficult language-wise, so that helped) and got accepted into my course of choice - the full time course at the Actors’ Institute in London. And that’s where everything changed. I had an amazing Shakespeare teacher in that course, Phil Peacock, who not only improved my understanding and appreciation for Shakespeare’s works, but also enabled me to transfer that learning to all texts I would encounter there and in my career afterwards. I was also given the thesis topic “Elizabethan Theatre” around the same time, which I was NOT happy about in the moment!! We each had to write and research (in pairs) about a period of Western Theatre history, and all the topics were pulled out of a hat, and I got Shakespeare’s period as mine. But I thank the universe now for that twist in my education, as that was the final piece of the puzzle that changed everything.

The minute I comprehended that this man actually lived and worked in the town I was living and working in - which meant I could visit the pubs he drank in, the churches he worshipped in, walk the streets he walked – he became more real to me and somehow, I suddenly began to understand the language and what he was talking about. It also helped that the Globe Theatre was being rebuilt on Southbank, so I got myself in there to interview the architects and get an inside view on how the plays were performed and what the audiences were like, and the times he wrote in.

'From that moment – I became a convert. I can tell you the exact moment it happened.'

From that moment – I became a convert. I can tell you the exact moment it happened. I had been invited to stand on the stage at the Globe to get a sense of what it would be like to perform there as an actor. I stepped up under the canopy that was still being painted by the artists, turned around to look out at the theatre, where other artisans were hand turning some bannister rails in the galleries, thatching the roof by hand up on scaffolding, and people were walking around with blueprints discussing where the columns on the stage should go and it was as if I’d suddenly stepped back to 1599 when the Globe was first built, overlaid by a modern version of what was actually going on around me. I could feel it all, the excitement of creating something new, something monumental, but also something enormously creative. I can’t explain exactly what happened, but I just knew at that moment I was home creatively.

Sally in Shakespeare Republic, Season 2

Sally in Shakespeare Republic, Season 2

Q. Your web series Shakespeare Republic has been incredibly well received. What made you want to re-contextualise Shakespeare for a modern audience? Do you think the web series format has contributed to its success?

A. I have been overwhelmed and so grateful for the response the series has got globally since we first began releasing it – not just for myself, but for my whole team. Everyone worked so brilliantly and generously on it and the leap of faith they all took with me is never taken for granted! I guess my need to re-contextualise Shakespeare is driven from that same place – the need to demystify him for people and clear away anything that prevents people from understanding what he was trying to say. Also, I think he’s just a damn good storyteller and his work deserves to still be heard and seen because it still holds lessons for us – which is, I think, the ultimate legacy of an artist – to have a positive on-going impact on the world.

I think the “bite-sized” nature of what we do in a web series short-form format definitely helps with its success. We’re not handing you a full text, just a taste – a chance to focus on one or two characters for a few minutes and reveal a concentrated moment of being human.

Q. What's your number one tip for actors who struggle with or are intimidated by Shakespeare?

A. DO NOT read the works first!! He wrote his plays to be performed, not read. His plays were never published by him and the full works were not published until after his death. He was a playwright, not a novelist. Watch productions with actors and directors who know the language and what they’re doing. Start with Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson’s “Much Ado About Nothing” (the film). I think that is one of the greatest examples of his comedies done in the modern era (although not set in modern dress) and you will get just about everything they say, because they all know what they’re doing. Even the actors who had never done Shakespeare before had a good grip on what they were talking about – which was down to the director, Kenneth Branagh. I could go on about the modern parallels in that story, but if you watch it, you’ll see that it is one of the first rom-coms ever written, that also has a darker storyline with the characters of Hero and Claudio. (Light + Dark is a very Elizabethan concept and they juxtaposed the two all the time). Also have a look at Baz Luhrmann’s modern setting of “Romeo + Juliet” on film – again, one of the first tragic romance stories written in the Western Theatre canon and the basis for so many other plays and films since.

'If he were alive today he would have probably started writing for TV Soaps and network TV and then moved onto blockbuster movies.'

Sally directing on the set of Speaking Daggers

Sally directing on the set of Speaking Daggers

If he were alive today (as my fabulous Shakespeare teacher at drama school pointed out) he would have probably started writing for TV Soaps and network TV (the poems and some of the early plays) and then moved onto blockbuster movies (the bulk of his plays). He wrote about all aspects of the human condition – just about everything – as well as wars and murder and politics and all the other stuff that is still being written about in fictional entertainment today, he just happened to be doing it 400 years ago when they spoke a bit differently.

Q. You once received this review after your performance in an all female version of Macbeth:  "an utterly convincing performance as the old Scottish King, belying the fact that McLean is not only young and a woman, but also Australian.” – Time Out, London. What can you tell us about this performance, and the process of getting into character?

That review always makes me laugh – more the “Australian” bit, as if it was a shock that an Aussie would understand Shakespeare!

So firstly, I need to point out that I was playing Duncan, not Lord M (although that is something I intend to do at some stage, just putting it out there), so it wasn’t as gruelling as it could have been. I came into the production late (I used to joke that I was “Duncan the Sixth” as five other actresses before me had taken the role, then got TV or film gigs, so left the production), so I only had three weeks before opening night to get to grips with it. Luckily I was fresh out of drama school, so I was up for it.

We had a fantastic director, Alistair Barrie, come into the production around the same time I did (the original director had to leave as well – let me tell you that the “Macbeth” curse is real … this production was fraught with issues from start to finish!). Alistair is a fantastic director and also an actor and stand up comedian - and is doing a gig as part of this year’s Melbourne Comedy Festival right now – “InternationAl” - his Melbourne Comedy Fest debut, even though he’s been touring and headlining for over a decade out of the UK. Just giving this plug, because he’s still a very close friend of mine, does political comedy and is bloody hilarious!

Alistair really gets Shakespeare and it makes all the difference to a production, which might sound obvious to say, but you really do need someone directing who understands the text and whole picture, is collaborative and has a clear vision of what they want to say with the work. Al flat out told us to not “play it like men”. What he meant by that was to get grounded, find our inner strength, find the masculine within us, but don’t “play the idea” of “masculine”. We all have feminine and masculine traits, so he simply asked us to explore the masculine. There were some very funny rehearsals where he had us walking around like men to get a sense of where the male centre of gravity is – it was VERY enlightening on many fronts! And those two simple techniques worked. I still use that work and advice today as an actor and director when getting people to play another gender.

Trailer for Season 2 of Shakespeare Republic

We used minimal props and didn’t make ourselves look like men, other than wearing pants. I wore my hair long (and it was very long at that stage), with a crown and a robe. I didn’t do anything to make myself older in look, I just had to hold the authority in the room (but I’ve always played older, so it came fairly easily). My voice naturally is quite low in timbre, and with the emotional connection to the masculine, as well as the physical posture, it dropped a little lower without my even thinking about it (having done voice classes continuously also helped with that). The audience couldn’t see me when I first spoke (I was revealed a few lines in), and a lot of audience afterwards would come up to me afterwards at the bar and say they thought I was actually an older man before I was revealed as a female, long-haired, younger red-head!

But it just goes to show if you know what you’re saying and it’s directed well and you have actors who are prepared to do their homework and have a solid foundation in skillset – the audience (and critics) will go along with the world you’re creating. When Duncan died, we had audience members in tears – same again when Lady M died - that was a hell of a thing to see and testament to Catherine’s (who played Lord M) homework and skill, as well as Al’s direction. It was only my second time playing Shakespeare on stage and turned out to be extremely well received critically and I think we sold out the latter part of the season, so it was thankfully a success (against the odds!).

Q. What's your favourite Shakespearean play, character or moment? Why?

A. Oh gosh, this is a hard one. I have so many! I think it’s more when an actor truly connects with what they’re saying and just delivers the most authentic, grounded, connected moment using the text – that takes my breath away. My top five would be Kenneth Branagh doing the “She loves me!” speech in his film of “Much Ado About Nothing” as Benedick, David Tennant doing the “To be or not to be” speech in the filmed version of the RSC’s “Hamlet” and pretty much anything Ian McKellen, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren and Patrick Stewart does wins my vote. There are several examples across Shakespeare Republic and Speaking Daggers of exquisite moments from my own cast, but I’m not going to pick any favourites, because there are too many to choose from and I am very lucky with the cast I have - they are a bunch of hardworking, talented actors that I am so grateful to be working with.

If I had to choose one play, it’s between Macbeth and Much Ado About Nothing. I love the characters, the storytelling, the fact I want to jump up and say during both plays “No! Don’t do that! It will end badly!!” – I get very invested! Richard III is in my Top 3 for the same reason.

Thanks for taking the time to chat to us Sally!

This article was originally published in April 2018. Sally’s next Playing the Bard course begins on August 21, 2019.