I’ve spent the last few weeks watching the Canadian series Slings & Arrows: The Complete Collection, which ran from 2003-2006. The series centers on the managers and actors at the New Burbage Shakespeare Festival. Erstwhile Hamlet and former asylum resident Geoffrey Tennant (played by Paul Gross) is creative director; his on-again, off-again lover, Ellen Fanshaw (Martha Burns) is the lead female actor of the company; the hilariously named Richard Smith-Jones (Mark McKinney) is the pathetically ineffectual, numbers-crunching business manager who harbors a semi-secret love of musical theater. The former creative director, Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette), dies in the first episode, but appears throughout the series as a ghost haunting and helping Tennant stage and direct a series of tragedies.
It’s a highly entertaining show, but in the end I cannot entirely recommend it.
Perhaps we can expect the characters to jump in and out of bed with each other; they are actors. And perhaps we should expect the artistic narcissism that subordinates everything, everything, to the goal of putting on a great play; they are actors. But the characters are so completely without moral compass that the humor edges too often toward tedium and disgust. In the final season, Tennant shoots up his aging Lear with heroin so that he can keep up with rehearsals. In an episode in the final season, one of the characters is accidentally hit in the face with a beer bottle. Everyone starts arguing and shouting while the victim lies moaning on the floor, unattended. Are actors really this self-absorbed? One hopes not. The only entirely sane person in the company is the administrator, Anna (Susan Coyne), who proves far shrewder than her surface of wide-eyed, deferential innocence might suggest.
Despite this, the series has many virtues. There are some very funny scenes and scenarios. Tennant’s nemesis Darren Nichols (Don McKellar) is full of theory and wants to deconstruct the gender hierarchies of Romeo and Juliet. In the final season, though, he ends up directing a highly successful musical. Smith-Jones gets manipulated and pushed around by everyone with money. During season 2 he contracts with the marketing firm, Frog Hammer. The marketing is insulting and vulgar and the firm’s director, Sanjay (Colm Feore), turns out to be a con man, but somehow it works, creating an audience “youthquake” just like Sanjay said it would.
The creators and many of the actors are veterans of the theater, so they presumably know the hidden dramas that take place off stage, the kinds of discussions and debates that actors have, the decisions that directors have to make. Tenannt carries a small stack of books and loose notes everywhere, and is often seen sitting as his desk poring over a play. If it’s not what directors and actors do with their time, it’s a convincing simulation.
Every episode includes substantive conversations about Shakespeare plays. Tennant’s explanation of Ophelia’s madness (to an actress who portrays Ophelia as if she were stoned) is one of the best things I’ve ever heard on Ophelia. Over objections, Tennant’s decides to strip Macbeth naked in Act 1 so Lady M can wash off the blood, a decision that prevents Macbeth from becoming a monster; underneath the armor, he’s a flabby middle-aged man. Most episodes include a scene or two from one of the plays, in rehearsal or performance, and they are always electrifying. We never see a complete play, but I ended the series wishing I could see these actors put on these plays. Out of the turmoil of preparation emerges a predictably triumphant performance, but the scenes of rehearsal and performance are so good that we forgive and forget the TV-land cliches.
The series as a whole is well thought out. Each season consists of six episodes dealing with a single play – Hamlet, Macbeth, and Lear in that order. Tennant has to deal with a different sort of leading man each time: Hamlet is a movie action star and everyone but Tennant doubts that he has a Hamlet in him. Tennant of course proves to be right. His Macbeth is a seasoned actor who has played the role “three times, successfully,” and thinks he knows more than his director. Tennant tricks him to get a visceral performance out of an actor gone lazy and safe. Lear is an intimidating old actor who is dying of cancer, his dying wish to play Lear. The series has an “ages of man” structure: The young hero Hamlet, the middle-aged Macbeth, the elderly Lear. The backstage drama matches the play in preparation: the ghostly Oliver Welles is Hamlet Sr. to Tennant’s Hamlet, Banquo to Tennant’s Macbeth, and the tension between the actor playing Lear and the actress playing Cordelia mimics what happens in the play. As I said, the creators and writers know what they are about.
Slings and Arrows is about somewhat revolting people achieving transcendent art. Which is, I suppose, what theater inevitably is.