‘Slings and Arrows’, Season 1, Hamlet, dir. Peter Wellington, Acorn Media. 2003. 6 x 45 minutes.
By Alan Brown
April 2, 2018
‘Slings and Arrows’, is available:
To stream on YouTube, Encore+, at https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLXssjYeUyJVGSvu1YWyTNM2fmXtOpXPYO
in the US, from Amazon.com to buy as a DVD, new from $35.99
in the UK, from Amazon.co.uk to buy Seasons 1-3, 7 discs (DVD, Region 1), new from £71.31
Prices are indicative – check the actual price at the Vendors’ links above.
Our Bottom Line
So far as television goes, a consummation devoutly to be wish’d.
… Outrageous and fortunate! Outrageous as in ‘Wowee!’ and thank you Canadian TV for getting this show together; and fortunate that YouTube provides an inexpensive way of enjoying it. There are two further seasons of Slings and Arrows – Macbeth (2005) and King Lear (2006) – but here’s a review of the first: 6 forty-five minute episodes of how Hamlet sold out at the New Burbage Festival, which doesn’t exist, but you can think Stratford, Ontario, and by any call this amounts to an enterprise of ‘great pitch and moment’.
To begin with it is a tale of two theatres, one – call it a Fringe venture – going down the pan and the other sitting comfortably, nicely established on its bar takings and with requisite benefactors and public funding. But which artistic director is the happier man? Oliver Wells, ‘on’ his 10th comfortable Dream, knowing full well that half his audience would prefer to be at the ice hockey or Geoffrey Tennant whose storm scene in
The Tempest looks just the ticket until the lights blow again? Answer: Geoffrey, of course; but both men have shared history and neither can get the other out of his head, which is entertaining given that Oliver, who is in all 6 episodes, dies at the end of the first. They have an amusing thing going with Yorick’s skull.
So, a third director is hired to take over Oliver’s next production. No, not liberal Geoffrey, in whom you might see Justin Trudeau’s big brother, but leather trousered Darren (splendidly ‘Me, Me, Me’ by Don McKellar), whose idea of stage action comes straight out of Kraftwerk’s Roboter and who regards Hamlet as a corpse of a play. Darren and Geoffrey, as you’d expect, go at each other with swords. One retires hurt to Berlin.
Three writers may share the credits: Susan Coyne (who also turns in an excellent performance as faithful festival administrator, Anna) Bob Martin and Mark McKinney – but, to judge from Season 1, Slings and Arrows is not at all ‘sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought’. Each episode opens with honky-tonk piano at the bar and the rousing song, ‘Cheer up Hamlet, chin up Hamlet; buck up you melancholy Dane!’, written by Lisa Lambert and Bob Martin. And nothing in the six episodes muffles that blithe, easy-going theme. Naturally there is a smiling, damned villain in business executive Holly Day (Jennifer Irwin) who slaps poor theatre manager Richard around the bed and into the Board Room and who almost, almost, gets her wicked commercial way but otherwise those whips and scorns of time are gently borne. Yes, Oliver (Stephen Ouimette) suffers ‘pangs of despis’d love’ and Ellen (Martha Burns), kind of dumped by Geoffrey, sleeps with younger men because that’s what a leading lady does; but then there’s sweet loving between Kate (Rachel McAdams at 25, just before Mean Girls and Notebook) and Jack Crew (Luke Kirby), who will play the Prince but is a movie star and is (therefore?) reckoned to be a little flaky in the acting department. (See pic at the beginning of this review for these two).
Where there is structure, as opposed to perky scenes of theatre folk, it is put together and its tensions held together by Geoffrey (Paul Gross, fresh from 67 episodes of genre-busting Due South). This is a theatre director capable – and why not? – of turning a toilet plunger into Prospero’s staff and who believes ‘that the best stuff happens just before the thread snaps’. He’d like to have Electra, Mother Courage, and Pericles in the next festival programme. In Episode 5, ‘A mirror up to Nature’, he nails Ophelia’s plight and then brings down Ellen, as Gertrude, from her insufferably vain heights. By the opening night in Episode 6, ‘Playing the Swan’ (there’s a swan ride in the park too!) Jack/Hamlet is waiting to go on: “I’m going to throw up”. Geoffrey’s advice? “Use it”.
At its heart Slings and Arrows – like Kenneth Branagh’s A Midwinter’s Tale – is a tribute piece. It applauds theatre and play making and actors and crew … and Shakespeare. It’s respectful, comic and clever. It should be far better known in the UK than it is. Maybe that’s changing but either way Canada and the US got there first on this one.
Soft you now, here’s a professional companion.
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