"The plays the thing, wherein I'll capture the conscience of the King", says a certain young Prince of Denmark, expressing his hope that a staged re-enactment of his father's death will cause his uncle the King to reveal his guilt. Even in Shakespeare's time the idea of a play within a play was common enough, and over the years there have been a variety of productions that have featured variations on that theme.
They have either been like Hamlet, where a play is mounted incidental to the central action but significant to the plot, or as in Noises Off been the focus of the production that has centred around a company's attempts to mount a performance. I've always felt a rather mild sense of dislocation in watching actors play actors, as there is something strange watching them create what are usually exaggerated versions of themselves. That's especially true of productions where there are characters who are Actors with a capital "A", and the characters have been rendered as a series of clichés by the playwright.
You can always count on there being an ingenue with stars in her eyes, a wise old character actor who has seen it all and knows every trick in the book, a bitter leading lady on her last run at good parts before being relegated to the scrap heap of character roles, a venerable leading man who will show up drunk as a skunk for dress rehearsal, the up and coming arrogant star who will be taught a lesson in humility, and of course the benevolent father figure of the director who pours balm onto troubled egos, and somehow manages to nurse the whole production safely through opening night.
It always has amazed me that people who work in theatre are able to go on stage or in front of the cameras and present something that does disservice to their profession by perpetuating people's perceptions of theatrical professionals as undisciplined eccentrics whose success or failure hinge more on fortune than on skill. Therefore it was with some trepidation that I began watching the seven DVDs (six are three years of episodes and the seventh is bonus features) that comprise the box set of Slings & Arrows: The Complete Collection.
What attracted me in the first place to the production - the fact that the lead roles were being performed by some of the best actors in Canada - also went a long way towards assuaging my doubts. I hoped that the combined skill of Paul Gross (Due South), Martha Burns (arguably the best classical female actor of her generation), Stephen Ouimette, and Mark McKinney among the regulars, and with guest stars the likes of Sarah Polley, Rachel McAdams, Colem Feore, and the incandescent William Hutt, that any deficiencies in plot and script would be overcome by sheer talent.