Outrageous Fortune: Shakespeare on TV
Slings and Arrows, written by Susan Coyne, Mark McKellar and Bob Martin. Directed by Peter Wellington. Starring Paul Gross, Martha Burns, Stephen Ouimette, Don McKellar, Susan Coyne and Mark McKinney.
THE Canadian television show Slings and Arrows is a send-up of Canada’s Stratford Theater Festival; but unlike most contemporary satire, it is also loving and imaginatively daring, with an emotional complexity and erudition rarely seen on television. Each season tracks the rehearsals and production of one of Shakespeare’s great tragedies—Hamlet in the first season (2003), Macbeth in the second (2004), and finally King Lear (2005)—at the fictional New Burbage Theater Festival. The catch is that life backstage—among actors, directors and stage managers, administrators and financers, and even a surprisingly astute janitor—reflects and discloses the meanings of the plays in production. These are not just clever symmetries; the screenwriters have so wholly absorbed the structures and meanings of these plays that their storylines turn effortlessly into meta-narrative.
When the show begins, the Festival’s washed-up Artistic Director Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette) dies an inelegant and darkly funny death when a pig truck runs him over after the opening of his eleventh production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He’s succeeded as Artistic Director by his ex-protégé Geoffrey Tenant (Paul Gross), the actor-cum-director who had a nervous breakdown on stage during Oliver’s production of Hamlet seven years earlier. We eventually learn the source of Geoffrey’s breakdown: Oliver slept with Geoffrey’s girlfriend, Ellen Fanshaw (Martha Burns), Ophelia in Oliver’s production. But the reason for his crack-up is more than just sexual jealousy. His mentor has betrayed him, and instead of the theater suddenly seeming meaningless or fraudulent, the play becomes all too real, and like Hamlet, whose affectations of madness create real psychological instability, Geoffrey himself goes mad. In flashbacks, Geoffrey’s nervous breakdown is treated somewhat comically—it’s the proverbial artist’s madness—and yet the terror of losing oneself in a performance so completely that reality becomes one with illusion haunts the show through each of the seasons. (Geoffrey’s genius as a director, and his persistent flaw, is his tendency to succumb to the play he’s working on to the extent that he loses touch with the people around him.)
Slings and Arrows airs this dark magic of theatrical delusion against its more prominent (and equally Shakespearean) theme: the redemptive power of the theater. Thus, in the first season, Geoffrey must come full circle to the New Burbage Theater, seven years later, for his wrongs to be righted. Since his breakdown, he’s been running a company called Theatre sans argent (Theater without Money) that keeps getting evicted from the run-down warehouse where they rehearse because he can’t pay the rent; he’s not thrilled about returning to the New Burbage stage, where his ex-lover Ellen is the reigning diva, but he has nowhere else to go. Oliver returns as a ghost to haunt Geoffrey with his past achievements and failures—he’s an annoying, pitiful ghost, indulgently plaintive and as mean and mischievous as he was in life—and of course Geoffrey has to face his fears by picking up the play Oliver was set to direct before he died: Hamlet.
Geoffrey’s production does with Hamlet what Louis Malle did with Uncle Vanya in his film Vanya on 42nd Street—he directs the play in rehearsal dress, with no sets, and only the raw power of the performances to carry the theatrical illusion. Oddly, when he decides on this Stanislavskian concept at the eleventh hour—focusing the entire production on the psychological realism of the performances—he also finds the key to connecting with Jack Crue (Luke Kirby), the American movie star Oliver flew in from Hollywood to play Hamlet, and to unlocking the production, which is stalled by Jack’s total inexperience on the stage. Kirby’s Jack is wiry and handsome, reminiscent of Keanu Reaves, and so nervous on stage (when he takes criticism you can practically see his skin turning grey, like he’s about to throw up) that he hides behind improvised dialogue to postpone saying the lines Shakespeare wrote. (“Nay, but to live in the rank sweat of an inseamed bed, stewed in corruption, and—you screw in that bed,” is Jack’s version of Hamlet’s accusation to his mother about her betrayal of his father’s memory.) The cast doesn’t really believe he can act, and his resistance to the text does little to dispel their cynicism, even though, as he explains to his girlfriend, he’s using a Method Acting technique he learned on the set with Ron Howard. He’s not indifferent to the lines or incapable of remembering them; he takes them too seriously to say them without getting the feeling behind them right, first.
But the joke is that Jack re-writes his lines the way Hamlet uses his soliloquys—to stall on deciding how to act. In one scene that represents the turning point of the entire production, Geoffrey takes Jack aside during rehearsal before running Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy: “To be or not to be.”
GEOFFREY: You have got to be specific. In this scene, Act III Scene I, does Hamlet know Claudius and Polonius are spying on him?
JACK: I don’t know.
GEOFFREY: You have to know. If Hamlet is aware of their presence when you speak these particularly famous words, you’re performing for the guy who killed your father, and for a meddling old fool, both of whom are hidden in this room. And if you don’t know they’re here, then your audience is you, and the people in these seats. But you have to decide.
GEOFFREY: Right now. But you have to decide.
Jack decides to give the soliloquy as a private reflection—he chooses sincerity over irony. What the writers do next shows Jack’s performance erasing itself and Hamlet becoming real: they intercut the shot of Jack in his rehearsal clothes on the empty stage with a shot of him in full period costume, so that they blend seamlessly. It’s a lovely moment, because the decision Geoffrey forces Jack to make allows the play to suddenly come together, and because it’s the screenwriters’ decision, too, that makes Slings and Arrows come together. Theater is always a private reflection—it’s most real when you perform for no one but yourself.
Slings and Arrows is a backstage show with a real backstage community. Most of its actors, including Gross, Burns and Ouimette, have performed on the Stratford stage; Ouimette spent his entire career there. Susan Coyne, who conceived the show and is one of its three writers, is also a Stratford veteran, and she and Burns are co-founders of the Toronto-based theater company Soulpepper Theater. Her fellow writers hail from the world of comedy: the sketch comedian, actor and screenwriter Mark McKinney best known for his work with the comedy troupe Kids in the Hall, and the actor and writer Bob Martin, who co-wrote the book for and starred in the charming musical theater parody The Drowsy Chaperone. Their sensitivity as actors provides the crucial link between the show’s writing and acting; it’s difficult to separate the two because, as Wendy Lesser has pointed out, the writers “seem so deeply inside the actor’s life that the lines are designed for perfect, convincing delivery.” Since all of the writers are also performers on the show—McKinney and Coyne appear in each episode as the administrators behind the scenes of the Festival, and Martin has a cameo in the first season as an accountant who falls in love with Shakespeare—writing and performance overlap.
Slings and Arrows also has a steady stream of terrific one-season cameos from actors whose real lives flood into their performances, both by accident and design. Rachel McAdams, right before her big break into Hollywood superstardom, gives a charming, ingenuous performance in the first season as the ingénue Kate McNab, a Festival apprentice (“I just play maids and fairies”) who gets to play Ophelia. The role was strangely prescient; her career blew up in 2004 and she had to be written off the show.
In the third season, Canadian stage icon William Hutt plays Charles Kingman, a veteran of the New Burbage stage whose dying wish—he has late stage cancer—is to play Lear. (Hutt died of cancer in 2007, a year after the final season of Slings and Arrows aired.) Hutt-as-Kingman-as-Lear is the most enchanting performance on the show; he’s as fine as any stage actor I can think of, and the montage from Geoffrey’s production of King Lear in the final episode makes you grateful that these fragments of his Lear have survived on tape. The young actress and director Sarah Polley (she made the film Away from Her), appears in the third season as the rising star playing Cordelia opposite the irascible Kingman—she’s coarse, bad-tempered, mischievous, delicate and luminous all at once. (Polley approached the writers and asked if she could be on the show; her father, the British-born Michael Polley, has a steady role on Sling and Arrows as the deafer, sweeter half of an aging gay couple, both stalwarts of the New Burbage theater company.)
Like a Shakespearean comedy, Slings and Arrows is divided between the court and the green world, here expressed as the money making side of the theater business, and its imaginative, uncontainable artistic spirit. But with its darkness and drama, and in spite of its farce, Slings and Arrows ultimately functions more like one of Shakespeare’s romances, those blends of tragedy and comedy he wrote at the end of his life. The show’s opening segment—the pilot’s teaser—shows Geoffrey running a rehearsal of The Tempest in the dank, ramshackle basement that houses his company Theatre sans argent. The plumbing is iffy and the lights blow out during his run-through of the storm scene, but his vision is so fierce that the warehouse disappears as he narrates the storm, and all we see is Geoffrey, his plunger transformed into a staff, engineering that rare theatrical magic that Prospero’s storm represents. At the end of the final season, when Oliver finally graduates from ghostly limbo, the spell of Geoffrey’s madness is broken, and he leaves the New Burbage Festival, the analogy between Geoffrey and Prospero returns—but this time it is Prospero in his last scenes, the sorcerer who breaks his staff, frees his fairy sprite and his slave, and renounces his “art.” Like The Tempest, Slings and Arrows shows that art, like power, is as fallible as those who wield it. But by extension, our lives can, at their best, partake of the redemption and catharsis that theater provides.
The show ends on the image of an empty fold-up chair, the one Oliver’s ghost used to sit in. It’s a complex image: it recalls the chairs the dead sit on in Thornton Wilder’s meta-theatrical graveyard in the final act of Our Town, and the abandoned sofa on the empty stage at the end of The Cherry Orchard in which the old man Firs sits down and dies. (For Chekhov, the empty stage is also a daring meta-theatrical device.) But the final note in Slings and Arrows is not just of tragedy or loss. The empty chair is also a stage—for what does the ghost represent if not the theatrical suspension of reality and reversal of time that can bring the dead to life? At the same time, the chair is an empty seat in the audience of a theater, before the curtain rises and the magic begins all over again. Like The Tempest, or better yet, The Winter’s Tale, the losses at the end of Slings and Arrows are ultimately comic—they leave room for renewal. Its meta-theatricality combines gravitas with characteristic mischief: the show ends with the sense of a reality that turns irrepressibly into theater.
Read our interview with Slings and Arrows writer and star Susan Coyne here.