Many years ago I found myself hanging out with a good friend who worked in the film and television industry in Toronto. She asked me if I wanted to go to the set of a television series that was currently being filmed. It was a show that was going to explore the never-ending battle between creating art and the commerce of theatre. Hours later, I found myself standing in the corner of a large arts center watching a room full of actors film a scene of a bunch of actors doing an initial reading of the play, Hamlet. The stars of the show, Paul Gross, Stephen Ouimette, and Martha Burns were at that table reading that was being filmed, and the energy and excitement vibrated through the room. They were portraying passionate and conflicted actors and directors, determined to find meaning within the play, and although I had no context to understand what was happening and why, I could tell it was going to be something quite special.
Slings & Arrows was that show (stream the whole series here), and that scene was a part of the first season, episode 3. The darkly comic series is a Canadian TV show set at the fictional New Burbage Festival, a Shakespearean festival similar to the real-world Stratford Festival, and I must admit that it is, by far, my favorite television series. I can’t speak about Shakespeare without finding the need to mention this show, especially whenever I see, watch, or write about Hamlet, Macbeth, or King Lear. How these people talk about the text and those plays, as well as Romeo and Juliet, gave me a deeper understanding of those Shakespearean plays, and to the passion that goes into creating meaningful art and theatre. I love it, distinctly and forever. It makes me laugh and cry every time I’ve watched it, and that, I must admit, has been many.
First aired on Canada’s Movie Central and The Movie Network channels in 2003, it gained great acclaim in the United States when it was shown on the Sundance Channel two years later. Three seasons of six episodes each were filmed, with the final season airing in Canada in the summer of 2006 and in the United States in early 2007. Slings & Arrows was created and written by former The Kids in the Hallmember Mark McKinney, who plays the Festival’s administrative director, Richard Smith-Jones; playwright and actress Susan Coyne (‘Mozart in the Jungle‘), who plays his magnificent administrative assistant, Anna Conroy; and comedian Bob Martin, who gives a great performance as accountant Terry. “You’re the numbers man!” The entire series was directed by Peter Wellington.
Slings & Arrows centers around life at a fictional Shakespearean theatre festival in New Burbage, Canada. Each season focuses on The New Burbage Festival’s production of a different Shakespearean play being produced on its main stage. The themes of the play are juxtaposed within the personal and professional conflicts facing the festival’s cast and crew. It finds parallels that keep making the viewer’s experience of the show deeper and more emotional, while also becoming more endearing and funny. So “Go for it, man!“, “these are the words a director most likes to hear.”
Season 1: Hamlet
As the show begins, actor/director Geoffrey Tennant, played perfectly by the excellent Paul Gross (‘Due South’, ‘Alias Grace’) is trying to run a small theatre company called “Théâtre Sans Argent” (French for “Theatre Without Money”) and it literally fits the threadbare title, as he tries to rehearse a Shakespearean storm scene while also dealing with a clogged toilet. The owner of the building arrives, demanding rent for the space, money that the theatre company doesn’t have. The writing of a bad check results in Geoffrey being arrested on their opening night, elevating the company and him into champions of theatre and the arts against commercialism, a theme that will resonate from beginning to end.
At the same moment, at the New Burbage Festival, artistic director Oliver Welles, gorgeously portrayed by the wonderful Stephen Ouimette (Stratford’s The Tempest), has slowly but surely dropped his focus at the festival, losing his drive for artistic greatness, and replacing his higher purpose for more commercialized and emotionally lame productions. It is the opening night of the New Burbage’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and actress Ellen Fanshaw, played to perfection by the glorious Martha Burns (“Blindness“) stars, but she is on the brink of despair, dissatisfied that Oliver has stopped caring about the details. The tension is palpable between the two, but the attitude is true, Oliver has stopped caring, and it is apparent to all around him. “You don’t make demands of the audience, you soothe them. Your shows are comfortable, like an old boot.” as stated by theatre critic, Basil, played smart by Sean Cullen (“The Love Guru“).
Seven years earlier, Oliver had directed Ellen and Geoffrey in a now-legendary production of Hamlet that many consider the quintessential production of the play and of the Festival, but something happened mid-way through one of the performances. Geoffrey froze, bringing the production to a grinding halt, with Ellen watching from the sidelines. He looks at her with all the pain of a Hamlet mourning the loss of his beloved Ophelia, and hops into her grave. Running and screaming out into the town, Geoffrey suffers a nervous breakdown and never returns, while Ellen stays solidly at the Festival, working and acting in productions directed by Oliver.
But on that opening night of Midsummer, Oliver sees Geoffrey on the news, chained to his theatre door, demanding that theatre be more about creation than commerce. “Now that’s theatre” he says. Heavily drunk, Oliver calls Geoffrey from a payphone and they argue, about the past, the present, and the future of theatre, but it doesn’t go very far. Oliver then passes out in the middle of the street and is run over and killed, not just by any vehicle, but by a truck bearing the slogan “Canada’s Best Hams“.
That is what this show is all about, on every emotional level, from the ridiculous to the important. It’s a great opening episode, but that first episode is all just pure setup, giving us the perfect leaping-off place. I tell everyone to watch at least the first two episodes of the show when diving in for the first time, so one can understand the illusionary heart and core of what “Slings and Arrows” is truly all about, the difficult task of making great theatre, art amongst the conflicting business of selling that commodity, unfolding under a truly ‘spirited’ eye of Oliver.
Episode two begins with Geoffrey being invited back to give a eulogy at Oliver’s funeral, but the speech slowly turns out to be more of a blistering critique of the state of the festival under Oliver’s watch. Surprisingly, especially to Geoffrey, it leads to an offer for him to take over as Interm Artistic Director on a temporary basis by May Silverstone, played by the wonderfully engaging Marcia Bennett. It’s not the greatest beginning, and most think he will fail, but after clashing with an old rival, Darren Nichols, played by the incredibly funny Don McKellar (“Last Night“), unleashing one of the best takedowns by Stage manager Claire (Sabrina Grdevich), Geoffrey is forced, most reluctantly, to take over the direction of the festival’s mainstage production of Hamlet. It stars, as many a Festival tends to do, a young action-movie star from Hollywood, Jack Crew, deliciously played by Luke Kirby (“Take This Waltz“), guaranteeing that the seats and the box office will be filled with gold. He’s an actor who has to feel it before he can say the true lines, leading many to wonder what kind of Hamlet he is going to be in the end. Geoffrey’s former lover and costar, Ellen, watches on with disbelief. She is playing Gertrude this time around, adding another layer of stress and conflict to the staging, all the while dating a young handsome man and rival, Sloan, played deliciously by the very studly Matt Fitzgerald (“Blindness“). “Poor Ellen, trying to screw the years off.”
One of the best surprising bits is the casting of the magically Rachel McAdams (‘The Notebook’, ‘Mean Girls‘) as the adorable apprentice actress Kate, who dazzles us all with her understudied Ophelia heartfelt love and madness, and who also finds herself falling hopelessly and inconveniently for the sweet-natured Jack. Geoffrey feels a similar connection, as he sees a great Hamlet inside the insecure Jack, in a way that no one else can, and his love of theatre, acting, and Shakespearean text all flows out in order to help this young action hero film star find his light. Every time I watch Jack take to the stage, it makes me cry, for the beauty of the art, and the faith in the text and the craft. But the true intelligent beauty of “Slings and Arrows” is that Oliver can’t seem to really let go of New Burbage, the production of Hamlet, and most of all, Geoffrey. It’s a brilliant nod to Shakespeare and the power of Hamlet’s Ghost, bringing depth and hilarity to every episode in this season, and beyond. “Geoffrey, Welcome home!” “Oh, no…..”
On the business side of the festival, New Burbage manager Richard Smith-Jones, deftly portrayed by Mark McKinney is seduced by one of his sponsors, American executive Holly Day, deliciously played by Jennifer Irwin (“Superstar“). “I’m so sick of hearing it’s a difficult play. I don’t like Shakespeare,” he says to the woman who wants to rebrand New Burbage into a commercialized theme park called “Shakespeareville”. “Now take off your pants“. It all comes down to the concept of indecision, the grand theme of Hamlet, not surprisingly. Will Geoggrey listen to his ghost or find his own Hamlet? Will Jack find the power to step forward into the light and claim his place? Or will he give in to his fears and uncertainty? Will Richard marry himself to power and money, like Gertrude, or will he stay true to the ideals of art and love? Will they resist or will they succumb? Decisions must be made, and the parallels pile up.
Season 2: Macbeth
The second season is all about the power dynamics within and outside of the New Burbage production of Macbeth. It’s the next stage of man, as they say. Moving from the young prince to the power-hungry king.
Richard has had to eat crow after last seasons debacle and is desperate for money to keep the festival afloat. Geoffrey, frustrated over what he sees as a lack of commitment and passion from his actors, suggests downsizing the company, making it more lean and focused. A famous, overly arrogant actor, Henry Breedlove, well portrayed by Geraint Wyn Davies (Stratford’s Antony and Cleopatra), is brought in, at Oliver’s pre-death request, to star in the main-stage production of Macbeth, which is pushed onto Geoffrey to direct. It’s a difficult play, he believes, although he also has no faith in the curse of the evil “The Scottish Play“, but things start to suggest otherwise. The power dynamics start to shift, and there is treachery and treason in the midst between the director, the star player, and the cast. Luckily there is Jerry, the magnificently brave understudy to Macbeth, beautifully portrayed by Oliver Dennis (“American Hangman“) and a widely funny intern stage manager, Emily Lu (Grace Lynn Kung) to help orchestrate the whole proceedings to the bitter naked end.
Richard, luckily, thanks to the very under-appreciated Anna, finds funding in the form of a government grant that comes with a catch, it must be repaid, and may only be used for rebranding. Richard, the easily swayed insecure man that he is, hires an avant-garde advertising agency, Froghammer, to promote and rebrand the festival. The head honcho of Froghammer, Sanjay, hilariously portrayed by Colm Feore (“Chicago“), launches a series of shock advertisements and manipulates Richard into accepting them. It appears to be the worst of all moves, but will the risk pay off?
Oddly enough, Darren has returned from an artistic rebirth in Germany to direct Romeo and Juliet. He is still as obtuse as before, wishing to strip the Shakespearean love tragedy of all its romance, forcing the miserable actors into chess piece figurine costumes who never touch or look at one another. But through the love and power of the craft itself, the acting couple who are playing the leads run breathlessly to Geoffrey pleading for help.
Meanwhile, back in the offices, Anna Conroy, the festival’s administrator played to delightful perfection by Susan Coyne, tries desperately to cope with an influx of interns while also getting pulled into a strange and adorable romance with the Canadian playwright Lionel Train, played by Jonathan Crombie (‘Anne of Green Gables‘) who has been tasked with creating and doing a reading of a new play in the festival’s studio theatre. Coyne, one of the writers of ‘Slings and Arrows‘ finally gives Anna a place to truly shine bright, drawing us completely in by holding us tight in the sweetest and most innocent of hugs.
There are a lot of things going on in this season now that the train has left the station. Ellen undergoes a tax audit, which becomes something quite different and therapeutic for both her, her brother-in-law, and the auditor. All the while, Geoffrey obsesses over the direction of his Macbeth, much to the chagrin of Oliver, who had almost every inch mapped out and stored away in boxes and boxes of notes and drawings that Anna found for Geoffrey’s inspection. The lines in the sand are drawn both on the stage and inside the corporate offices. Who will triumph in the end? Will Oliver get his Macbeth as he so long ago planned? Or will Geoffrey find his own way forward against all the hurdles set before him? Will Ellen wash her hands of the betrayal, siding with her character’s husband or her real-life lover? Who will rule the proverbial castle when the battle is over?
Season 3: King Lear
In the third and final season of ‘Slings and Arrows‘, it comes to an end, most impressively in the last stage of man. We have moved from the young prince through the power-hungry king to the old king who must leave it all behind. It’s an obvious choice that the New Burbage production of King Lear is the one to be explored and put on stage, and it is with this play that the wild stormy adventure comes to an awesome and intelligent close.
The cast of Macbeth has returned after a successful run of the production on Broadway, filled to the brim with excitement and pride. In NYC, Ellen has rekindled her friendship with her old acting pal, Barbara, played solidly by Janet Bailey (“The Recruit“) who continually tries to get her to think about moving up and beyond the New Burbage Festival. Television is where the money is, she keeps reminding Ellen, even if the roles are not as classic and dynamic as what Ellen is being offered at New Burbage. As Richard tries to cope with being a success, Anna must deal with a group of stranded musicians, and Darren is back in town, this time to direct a new musical, East Hastings.
Geoffrey, under a lot of pressure to soak in his professional success, has decided to cast an aging theatre legend, Charles Kingman, played strongly by William Hutt (“The Statement“) as Lear, despite Richard’s disappointment that he won’t be a big box office draw. As rehearsals begin with Ellen and Barbara as the evil older sisters, Charles proves to be a supremely difficult actor to deal with, terrorizes the cast and the crew with scoldings that sting. Sophie, played beautifully by the wondrous Sarah Polley (“The Sweet Hereafter“), gets most of his ire as she attempts to play the loving true daughter, Cordelia, a role she has always wanted to play. Sophie is not only struggling during rehearsal with Charles but is stuck in the middle of the rivalry between the young actors in Lear and the young musical theatre actors in the house they all occupy. Troubles escalate as Lear struggles against the storm to open, mainly because of Charles’s physical problems, which are a secret to everyone but Geoffrey (and Anna). Charles is dying from cancer and has made Geoffrey promise him that he will get to play Lear before he dies, but the timeline is looking more and more harrowing, as his drug regime and his temperament are getting the best of his mental capabilities and his erratic performance.
Things begin to spiral out of control as Charles’s health becomes more and more problematic, and the fear is that playing the role might actually kill him. Richard’s love with his beloved musical collide. East Hastings is a huge success, overshadowing the troubled Lear, causing Richard to push the Shakespearean production off the main stage and into exile in the smaller theatre. Oliver returns to help, at first with Geoffrey’s therapy with an unlikely professional, but then, much to their surprise, in a role alongside Charles that he didn’t see coming.
Will the staging of King Lear drive everyone mad by the end sending them out screaming into the storm? Will the warring sister/friends kill one another, poisoning their friendship over love and the desire for success? And will Sarah Polley survive the heartbreak of both romantic and paternal love and rejection? Geoffrey loses his footing, twice, in two separate theatres, and finds he must wander out into the wasteland in order to find his Lear. “Now that’s theatre“, as Oliver said Season 1, Episode 1.
Macbeth, and moneyman Terry in ‘Slings and Arrows‘ says, “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” but planted inside the New Burbage Festival, it couldn’t be further from the truth. Since I saw that one scene being filmed so many years ago, this television series has been my Shakespearean touchstone, giving me more pleasure time and time again than almost any other television series that I can think of. It makes my heart swell, as well as laugh with joy at its sharp wit and astute observations. When I see one of these four plays that exist inside ‘Slings and Arrows’, I can’t help but reflect on the intense joy and serious love that exudes from Geoffrey Tennant when he digs into the meaning of some Shakespearean text.
It has elevated my understanding of these “difficult” plays, and what it means to be enlivened by the attempt. I love the two older gentlemen, Cyril (Graham Harley) and Frank (Michael Polle) who sing and ring in the (brilliantly crafted) opening and closing numbers for each of the three seasons with a grand pub song. And even though the ending of the series leaves me sad and upset, I must confess I tear up when those same two older actors plead with Geoffrey to continue making great art at the Festival. “No, I’ve given my whole life to this place. I’ve been here ever since it’s been under a tent. I’ve played every Duke, Lord, and First Messenger, everyone in the canon, and finally, after all that, this year I made it to Broadway.” “Sean Penn finally got to see our Shakespeare, thanks to you.” “Thanks to you. Yes. You can’t leave.” It is every bit the heartbreak that I feel in those closing episodes, and the reason this show, after all these years, is still a must-see experience. It will change how you see theatre, and those that try with all their might, against all odds, to make theatre that matters, to make theatre that makes us smile and laugh, but most of all, to make theatre that touches our heart and our soul. It broadening our life experiences with one another and deepening our collective artistic spirit, and it’s what we most need in our world, especially now. So please, if you haven’t seen it, watch it, but take your time, it’s an experience to savor with delight and love.
“Best of luck with what’s left of your lives.”
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