On “Slings & Arrows”

I’ll be honest, I don’t know how well-known this three-season Canadian program is. I know you can watch the entire show on Netflix instant watch (it’s not long: three seasons, six 45-minute-long, episodes per season). You can get the whole collection for about $53 on amazon.com while I’m writing this, which is something that I personally would really like to do. Because this show is really good. It’s good enough to watch more than once. It’s good enough that I really want to blog about it in the hopes that someday, someone who’s never heard of it will stumble on this post and decide to give it a try. It’s good enough that is feels cheap to use the word “good” to describe it. This show is excellent.

It hits my buttons (not the ones that make me mad, but the ones that make me like things) in all the right ways. I love it because it reminds me how much I love theatre, and at the same time, how much I love studying literature. It’s a very smart show, and it treats the viewer like he or she is smart, too. And we all like that, don’t we?

A quick plot overview, for those not familiar: the Canadian New Burbage Theatre Festival (not to be confused with the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, On, to which this show is completely unrelated facetiousfacetious) is sinking fast. At the helm of the festival is Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette), a creatively stagnated artistic director, and Richard Smith-Jones (Mark McKinney), the out-of-place, desperate-to-be-loved financial director. As per usual in stories of the theatre, there’s never enough money to go around and the twisted and gnarled interpersonal relationships of the company explode and wreak havoc everywhere. At the heart of this is the show’s remarkable trio: Oliver, Ellen Fanshaw (Martha Burns), a seasoned actress with serious diva qualities, and Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross), an actor who, seven and a half years before the pilot episode takes place, lost his mind while playing the title character in Hamlet and disappeared.

A lot (though certainly not all) of the magic of the show happens between these three players. They’re funny, sympathetic, relatable, often astoundingly irritating, and just as often astoundingly sad. Even in their most obnoxious, insane, or depressing moments, I was transfixed by the warm, brilliant humanity of these characters. And it doesn’t hurt that they know how to do Shakespeare, and god help the English lit nerd in my heart, I can’t get enough of it.

I’m not saying that there’s one right way to treat Shakespeare, but I’d be willing to imply heavily that this show treats him in a very right way. We get to skip all of the Bard 101 stuff that high school freshman get. There’s no tongue-in-cheek, obligatory “Shakespeare jokes” like the ones we’re fed in Shakespeare-themed special episodes or heavily referential movies. Don’t get me wrong: I really liked Shakespeare in Love. But the widely appealing laugh you get from a fire-and-brimstone street preacher casting “a plague on both your houses” in the first scene and having Shakespeare make a note of it is just that– widely appealing. It’s a wink and a nod that the majority of the audience is going to get. The same thing happens, to an even greater, more simplified extent, when David Tennant’s Doctor meets Shakespeare in “The Shakespeare Code,” and episode in the third series of the new Doctor Who. The Doctor busts out “the play’s the thing” and “all the world’s a stage,” and even encourages Shakespeare to write down “to be or not to be” when the bard himself says it. The references, overall, are pretty broad. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that, but to anyone with a passion for Shakespeare or who’s studied him at any length, there isn’t much interest in referring to those old, tried and true expressions.

In Slings & Arrows, we get much more than that. We get mad Geoffrey Tennant, nearly frothing at the mouth and delivering not a single, well-known buzzline from Hamlet’s soliloquies, but full, eruptive speeches. He seems to melt into Ophelia’s madness while reciting her lines to the terrible actress contracted to play her in his Hamlet; by words alone, he attempts to wrench some authentic emotion from her, and in doing so offers us a taste of the passion in his character. His passion exists not only for the art, for performance, or for his personal drama, but his passion for the very words is palpable. It’s an amazing scene, one in which I forget that all I’m seeing is a director trying to extract a performance from an uncooperative actor. The creators of this show are not content to give us the occasional, self-explanatory nod to Shakespeare’s best-known quotes. In the end of the first episode, for example, Geoffrey offers, “and thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges,” which, while by no means obscure, tells us right away that we are out of Shakespeare-gift-shop territory. Souvenir purveyors don’t print that particular Feste quote, from the one bittersweet note in Twelfth Night‘s festive ending, on many mugs or bookmarks. They don’t attach it to the front of journals, attributing it simply to the author and giving it no context or voice of its own. Here, context and voice is everything– just as if you were reading, or performing, these plays yourself.

I’m going to stop myself before I get out of hand here, and wax too worshipful of every element of this show. So, let me just hit a couple of highlights.

It’s a show about reading and performing Shakespeare that revives my love for some of his most wonderful plays. It takes on Hamlet, Macbeth, and Lear, and spends a few delightful moments with Romeo and Juliet as well. In Ellen and Geoffrey, it features beautiful, sexy, interesting romantic leads well past the tried-and-tried-and-true teen and twenty something romantic lead standard, and it isn’t forced; it’s refreshing and wonderful. Each season begins with a jaunty pub song based on that season’s major play (think lines like, “Cheer up, you melancholy Dane!” and “I’d be crackers to take on Mackers”). And finally, in one of my personal favorite touches, there’s a particular piano theme that starts trembling softly and crescendos as the action swell washes over you and the actors in their epiphanic moments, and it accompanies textual analysis. I mean, geez. Unlocking the power and passion of the text gets its own theme? Sign me up. It’s like catnip for English nerds.

So if you’re a cat, or an English nerd, or a Shakespeare fan, or a theatre person, or anyone familiar with the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, or even a wandering Kids in the Hall devotee who just can’t get enough of Mark McKinney, try it. I’m telling you. It’s really, really good.

Slings & Arrows on IMDB