A long while ago, I heard of a tv series about a Shakespearean company; based on that alone I wanted to see it, but it was a Canadian series, and if it ever aired here we didn’t get the channel or something. (*Goodsearch* Canada’s Movie Central and The Movie Network channels, and the Sundance Channel here – which indeed we don’t get.) Some time after I joined Netflix I remembered the series, though not, Barnes-and-Noble-customer-like, the name, and went on a hunt to find out what it was. It took a while, but I finally came up with “Slings and Arrows”, and put the first season in my Netflix queue. And then got sidetracked and never moved it to the top of the list, so that it languished in the middle somewhere.
Then two of the Shakespeare admirers I admire, Chop Bard and the Shakespeare Geek, both recommended it in no uncertain terms, and I discovered that the series is available to watch instantly. With my shiny new laptop such things are more convenient, so last night I fired it up and watched the first three episodes, and would have kept going except for the lateness of the hour. (Sometimes, “To go to bed late is to go to bed late”.)
It’s brilliant. In several senses of the word, from “highly intelligent” to “of surpassing excellence (primarily UK usage)”. From the opening of the first scene, going from fixing a toilet and arguing over which bills are to be paid, to the return to rehearsal and – “Go for it, man!” – a gloss of the first scene from Tempest, in which a plunger becomes the wizard’s staff, to “Aw, nuts” … It couldn’t have been better calibrated to capture me, hook, line, and sinker. How absolutely gorgeous.
From the struggling little Theatre Sans Argent (Theatre Without Money) to the New Burbage Shakespeare Festival was a jolt – from the struggling, true-to-the-work little hole in the wall ready to be condemned to the shiny huge bureaucracy of the New Burbage Theatre was quite a jolt. They’ve sold out – corporate sponsorship, leading to depradations of Shakespeare. And there’s a gift shop. Things are gonna get interesting.
I love that I sat through the first episode wondering, when I could spare the attention, why Geoffrey Tennant looked so familiar … And then registered Paul Gross’s name in the titles of the second episode, and realization dawned: Constable Benton Fraser of Due South. From a three-dimensional Dudley Do-Right to an actor/director still recovering, emotionally and professionally, from having had a nervous breakdown in the middle of the fourth performance of a seminal staging of Hamlet … I acquit myself for not having recognized him. (He was also, according to Wikipedia, in Prairie Giant: The Tommy Douglas Story, playing John Diefenbaker – wasn’t that the wolf in Due South, Diefenbaker? And in 2000 he played Hamlet in the Stratford Festival of Canada. That’s fantastic.) He’s perfect. Aside from being beautiful, he’s utterly convincing, and makes Geoffrey’s short-lived Hamlet (with Oliver directing and Ellen Fanshaw as Ophelia) one of those performances I long to be able to see. (And yes, of course I’m in love with him.) And his direction of “She should have died hereafter”, and the fledgling actor’s subsequent delivery of it, is three of the most perfect moments on television. (It makes me not only want to audition somewhere, but to use that speech as my audition piece, gender be damned.)
I love that as of the third episode I have not been given the whole story. I know the public part of what happened, via a gossip between the two elderly gay men who carry the spears in the company (and who provide the gleeful opening and closing credit songs, which I will learn before long); I know the results, certainly, via the present-day relationships among Geoffrey, Oliver, and Ellen … but they have not yet revealed the rest of why there is so very, very much bitterness left that when Ellen and Geoffrey have to be in the same room it feels like the air around them should curdle. It should be interesting.
I love that the ghost who shall remain spoiler-free and nameless is haunting the theatre, or at least Geoffrey – and according to Netflix and imdb remains through the series – and I love that at least as of now there is doubt as to whether he’s a figment of Geoffrey’s madness or an actual ghost.
The rest of the cast is also amazing: Oliver (Stephen Ouimette) is pitiable, hateful, and sympathetic all at once; Ellen Fanshaw (Martha Burns) is exquisite (and Paul Gross’s real-life wife), and I’d have loved to have seen more of her Titania; Nichols (Don McKellar) is hideous; Kate (Rachel McAdams) is adorable, and Claire Donner (Sabrina Grdevich) is so hilariously bad that you just know her understudy (Kate, of course) is going to wind up playing Ophelia. Luke Kirby is Jack Crew, an American action film actor brought in to boost ticket sales by playing … Hamlet. (A la, apparently, Keanu Reeves being cast as God-help-us-Hamlet at the Manitoba Theatre Centre in 1995 – whose bright idea was that?? How dreadful … (He was critically praised, at least by some? Really? Was that critic high?)) He’s pitiful, and pitiable, in these early stages – “Angles and ministers of grace …” “the stings and arrows” … Poor bugger. But I look forward to Geoffrey getting his directorial hands on him. Standing as bemused civilian support to the fey acting troupe are Susan Coyne as Anna Conroy, administrative everything, and Catherine Fitch as Maria, technical everything – superb.
And then of course there are the villains: Mark McKinney as Richard Smith-Jones (“Can you spell your last name, please?”) and Jennifer Irwin as Holly Day (“She’s the devil!”). They’re bored with Shakespeare – they don’t like Shakespeare (“No one does!”) …though to their credit they do want to make people leave their theatre dancing and singing, which the Shakespeare they’ve seen doesn’t do. (They haven’t met John Christian Plummer and Maia Guest, and their Twelfth Night.) As of episode 3, they’ve only just begun talking about what they want to do to the Shakespeare Festival …
And I have to mention Matt Fitzgerald as Sloan, Ellen’s very new, very young boyfriend, or turn in my second X chromosome.
I love that it’s a comedy, but one that simply focuses a lens on an aspect of reality to find humor; there is some outrageous behavior, but the characters are by nature and by profession outrageous. And I love that while it is a comedy, it takes the art of theatre very seriously – albeit in a very, very funny fashion. Most of the characters have been with this company, this theatre, for years, and Geoffrey was until the crack-up; it’s their home, and their vocation, and their reason for being … Amid the ironic sheep and the pot-smoking for sense memory are stunning moments of Shakespeare as good as anything I’ve seen. Or better. I can’t wait for Season 2 and The Scottish Play.
What an utterly gorgeous show. I wholeheartedly pass on the very strong recommendations of … everyone: rent, buy, or insta-view this series. It’s one of the best things to have ever come out of television.
And there’s a chameleon.
Cheer up, Hamlet
Chin up, Hamlet
Buck up, you melancholy Dane!
So your uncle is a cad who murdered Dad
And married Mum.
That’s really no excuse to be as glum as you’ve become!
So wise up, Hamlet
Rise up, Hamlet
Perk up and sing a new refrain.
Your incessant monologizing
Fills the castle with ennui.
Your antic disposition is embarrassing to see.
And by the way, you sulky brat,
The answer is to be!
You’re driving poor Ophelia insane.
So shut up, you rogue and peasant
Grow up, it’s most unpleasant
Cheer up, you melancholy Dane!