|A complicated triangle: Martha Burns, Paul Gross and Stephen Ouimette in Slings & Arrows|
Slings & Arrows 2003-6 Canada (three six-episode seasons) directed by Peter Wellington; created and written by Susan Coyne, Bob Martin, and Mark McKinney, with Tecca Crosby and Sean Reycraft.
This gem of a Canadian workplace comedy/drama television series set amid a fictional theater festival is about miracles.
Shakespeare’s words are the first miracle. The next comes when a motley and diverse collection of actors herded catlike together animate these words to enchant the easily distracted modern ear four centuries later.
The third miracle is the terrific series writing and richness of carefully selected detail which together, like good acting, make the careful thought, discernment, talent and hard work that went into the making seem arbitrary and incidental, that is, natural, as though of real life, and not just the cut and thrust of costumed capering.
In a sense, this is a workplace comedy that makes the most frivolous things serious and handles serious matters with a light, sure touch. Unlike most workplaces, the theater provides the broadest context because it involves men and women of all ages across the whole range of human experience.
At the same time, there is a Canadian thing going on: the word ‘sorry’ seems to be a national institution—or to stand for one.
As in Shakespeare’s dramas, the series includes a disparate collection of kings and queens, princesses and paupers, knights and knaves, rogues, fools, fairies, witches, and ghosts. The cast does as good a job in their roles as contemporary actors as the characters they play find voices for Shakespeare’s classic parts.
|Alas! Poor Oliver. Paul Gross in Slings & Arrows: the answer is 'To be.'|
It is exciting to watch Shakespeare’s plays take shape from a director’s vision, and to hear the old words in dog-eared scripts find life anew as they have for hundreds of years.
The setting is the New Burbage Festival, a fictional annual theater festival in a small Ontario town, based loosely on the world-renowned Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario.
The series may be best characterized as a three-tiered wedding cake with three figures on top, ornately decorated with a profusion of subplots and moments.
The three cake tiers are the Shakespeare plays that lead each festival—and series—season: Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear.
The figures on top are the story’s three principal roles which form a complicated triangle: Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross), the festival’s brilliant and passionate artistic director; Ellen Fanshawe (Martha Burns), the polymorphously perverse main leading lady (as Titania, Gertrude, Lady Macbeth and Regan); and Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette), their former director and mentor, untimely done in by a truck bearing the slogan ‘Canada’s Best Hams.’
Oliver’s demise early in season one leads to Geoffrey succeeding him as artistic director. Geoffrey must direct Hamlet, the play in which seven years earlier under Oliver’s direction (and in which Ellen played Ophelia), provoked by Oliver’s manipulations, he had a nervous breakdown during a live production, which ended in a long spell of clinical institutionalization.
|Chatty ghost Stephen Ouimette with Paul Gross in season one of Slings & Arrows|
Like Hamlet, Geoffrey must master his indecision to act to oppose the ‘sea of troubles’ by which he is beset: a lead played by Jack Crew (Luke Kirby), an American action movie star whose agent sent him to the festival for stage seasoning, as capable of the role as he is intimidated by it; an appallingly bad Ophelia played with ‘Vietnam flashbacks’ by Claire Donner (Sabrina Grdevich); and most of all his ‘theatre father’ Oliver’s ever-present, kibitzing ghost. An inspired understudy played by Rachel McAdams and a chameleon turn out to be the silver lining.
Geoffrey also must contend throughout the series with the suits, particularly the festival’s musical-happy executive director Richard Smith-Jones (Mark McKinney, one of the series writers). Anna Conroy (series creator and writer Susan Coyne), Richard’s straight-faced associate administrative director, strains a Canadian stiff upper lip to contain this antic hay.
|Susan Coyne and Mark McKinney, writers and stars of Sling & Arrows|
One of many lively subplots involves Richard and Holly Day (Jennifer Irwin), an effervescently over-the-top representative of the festival’s new American corporate sponsor from Houston—a classic Canadian take on the neighbors across Niagara Falls.
Season two features Henry Breedlove (Geraint Wyn Davies), a pompous, square-jawed veteran stage actor, as Macbeth, in a power struggle with Geoffrey as his director, complete with echoes of Sergio Leone theme music.
Alongside this battle royal runs Romeo and Juliet, directed by the flamboyantly condescending, beleathered Darren Nichols (Don McKellar) with exuberant affection for Germanic and special effects. Nichols is at pains to contain his Patrick (David Alpay) and Sarah (Joanne Kelly) whose Romeo and Juliet take on lives of their own and burst from the postmodern cages in which he purports disdainfully to mock them.
|Joanne Kelly and David Alpay as Juliet and Romeo caged in Slings & Arrows|
Watching Patrick and Sarah play Romeo and Juliet’s famous night together (II, ii) from the wings, Ellen, who once played Juliet to Geoffrey’s Romeo, tells Geoffrey that she hates the play.
‘You watch it and you feel miserable because you don’t have that kind of passion in your life. Nobody does. It’s a fantasy. It’s irresponsible,’ Ellen says.
‘You know what I think?’ Geoffrey replies. ‘I think it’s painfully accurate. Two idiots meet, they fall in love; they’re happy briefly; then all hell breaks loose. Happens all the time.’
Meanwhile in a contemporary theatre workshop, two more ‘idiots,’ playwright Lionel Train (Jonathan Crombie) and practical Anna, develop a mad passion.
|Paul Gross, William Hutt and Sarah Polley rehearsing King Lear in Slings & Arrows|
Season three features elderly stage legend Charles Kingman (the octogenarian Shakespearean actor William Hutt) as King Lear, relentlessly hectoring his Cordelia, Sophie Dunbar (actor, writer and film director Sarah Polley). The counterpoint to Hutt's spellbinding pièce de theatre is a fizzy contemporary Broadway-style musical East Hastings: the Musical that puts a bounce in Richard-the-suit’s middle-aged step.
The series makes delicious mincemeat of theater people, those who make theater no less than their audience and supporters. No sweat there. One of the reasons it works well is the sense that these writers and actors make fun of the theater people they know best: themselves and each other. The parody is entirely within scale. The cast play roles and tell stories larger than life; thus the drama and parody need be larger than life-sized.
We see actors living the same rambling, shambling passionate lives offstage as they play on it. The Shakespeare snippets are done convincingly well—or badly on purpose; the fragments of Hutt’s King Lear are astounding.
The great moments surprise and delight. One comes in the bar where the actors hang out, after the festival cancels King Lear. Cyril (Graham Harley) and Frank (Michael Polley, Sarah’s father), an older gay couple who play perennial roles ‘in the middle of the pack,’ try to console disappointed Sophie that the cancellation is not the end of the world.
‘Oh Sophie, love, don’t fret. You’ve got lots of talent, you’ll have loads of success and a very long career,’ said Cyril.
‘But… at the end of it all, you’ve got to have some spectacular cock-ups,’ Frank said.
‘Because then you’ll have stories,’ Cyril said.
‘And then, you’ve had a life… You’ve had a life,’ Frank said.
The show does indeed go on—and ends with a wedding.