"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.
The New Burbage Theatre Festival of Slings & Arrows is obviously modeled on Canada's renowned Stratford Shakespearean Festival right down to the swans that float gracefully through the river passing through town. Like the company it's based on, the New Burbage is struggling to maintain its artistic integrity while remaining financially viable. As is often the case in real life, artistry is coming out on the losing end. Too many of the artistic staff, including the artistic director Oliver Wells (Stephen Ouimette), are merely going through the motions without any real passion for the job anymore.
In contrast we are offered a glimpse of the life on the low end of the theatrical totem pole in the shape of the Festival's prodigal son Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross) as he struggles to keep his small alternate theatre alive by passing bad checks. Seven years ago Geoffrey had suffered a nervous breakdown on stage during a production of Hamlet at the Festival and had fled, vowing never to return. But fate has other plans in store for him. When Oliver Wells is run over and killed, after passing out in a road drunk, by a delivery truck, Geoffrey allows himself to be persuaded to become interim artistic director. By the end of the first season he finds himself appointed full artistic director.
Each of the three season's six episodes focus on Geoffrey's efforts to direct one of three major works of Shakespeare; Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear. Each season the conflict between money and art grows, and the struggle for control of the festival between Geoffrey and the General Manager, Richard Smith-Jones (Mark McKinney) intensifies. Although he appears to get the point about the power of art periodically, Smith-Jones continually allows himself to be seduced by the lure of power, and the power of the buck until he is finally "too steeped in blood" to turn back.
The other major sub-plot that runs throughout the three seasons is the "star crossed" relationship between Geoffrey and the festival's leading lady Ellen Fenshaw (Martha Burns). They had first come together during Geoffrey's first stint at the Festival when they were both actors working under Oliver Wells' direction. She had been Ophelia to his Hamlet and they had been madly in love. But when she slept with gay Oliver, Geoffrey, torn apart by what he saw as his betrayal at the hands of the two people he loved and trusted the most, suffered his infamous onstage breakdown.
Seven years later they both have to deal with the anger, grief, and unresolved feelings between them, while working as actor and director and figuring out what to do about the fact that they've never stopped loving each other. Further clouding the issue is the looming presence of Oliver Wells between them. Not only is his legacy all around them, the Macbeth Geoffrey has to stage is expected by all to be based on extensive notes and designs that Oliver left behind, but Geoffrey is literally being haunted by Oliver's ghost.
At first Geoffrey tries to dismiss it as a delusion, but gradually he comes to accept that Oliver is really there, and refusing to acknowledge his presence only makes matters worse. Of course it does nothing to reassure others that his history of mental illness is in the past when he is seen having conversations and arguing with the someone who isn't there. But in the end ghost and man begin to take pleasure in each other's company.
The creators of Slings & Arrows could have taken any number of approaches to the series — satire, farce, or even melodramatic soap opera. Instead they took a path that's not often traveled on this continent when it comes to television, and avoided taking any approach at all. Like the theatre itself, Slings & Arrows is larger than life, but if characters and situations are exaggerated, it is never beyond the realm of believability and always to serve the aims of the script. There's not a cheap laugh or manipulated sentiment to be seen as the script, direction, and actors work together to write a love letter to the object of their mutual affection — the theatre.
As I had assumed the acting is exceptional from the smallest of bit parts to the leads. Paul Gross, Martha Burns, Stephen Ouimette, Susan Coyne, and Mark McKinney (the latter two were also two-thirds of the writing team) as the five leads give wonderful performances. Burns in particular handles the extremely difficult task of making a flamboyant character realistic by allowing the person under the actor's mask to show through as often as possible without it appearing to be a conscious effort.
Then there's the Shakespeare. I don't remember the last time that I've seen such universally wonderful handling of the text by all the actors required to speak the dialogue. For those of you who have ever feared Shakespearean language and say it's impossible to understand, I challenge you to retain that opinion after watching any of the episodes in Slings & Arrows where they venture onto the stage and perform.
Watching the late William Hutt recreate his final role at Stratford, King Lear, in episode three, is watching a clinic in how to speak the language, and to remember that power has nothing to do with being loud. And I defy anyone to keep a dry eye when Rachel McAdams performs Ophelia's "Will he come again" speech from Hamlet in episode one. These are but two of many superlative performances of Shakespeare placed throughout the entire series, and I can only hope that perhaps upon seeing them, one or two people might be persuaded that there is more to theatre than pyrotechnics or song and dance.
While some of Slings & Arrows might come across as an in-joke, the beauty of this production is that the audience is given a very real look at what goes on behind the scenes in a repertory theatre company on both the artistic and business side of the ledger. That the balance is skewed to favour the art over the business is a choice that may not be in keeping with the current political climate, but it makes for a nice change from how the arts are normally presented.
Slings & Arrows: The Complete Collection would make a wonderful gift for the theatre lover in your family or perhaps as a means to convince others of how wonderful the theatre can truly be. "We are all, but merely players" in the end after all.