Sunday, July 30, 2006

Slings and Arrows (2003)

Hamlet played by Jack Crew
Directed by Geoffrey Tennant

Any backstage theatre drama that decides to tackle a production of Hamlet must be brave and crazy since they ultimately risk comparison with Ken Branagh's charming In The Bleak Midwinter. The excellent Canadian television series Slings and Arrows neatly sidesteps the issue by concentrating on the business and sponsorship of a modern theatre, reserving the usual conflicts surrounding the production for the closing few episodes. Tonally a crossing Northern Exposure with Arrested Development, the series takes the incidents from the play and scatters them through its episodes, so there is the death of a spiritual father, a duel between old rivals, the madness of an errant 'son', a ghost and a betrayal. Joyfully, rather than attempting to slavishly follow these familiar patterns, much like The Lion King they're merely influences and don't rule the action. Former mountie Paul Gross plays Geoffrey Tennant, a generally insane theatre director called in when his estranged mentor dies. He finds himself battling through a tenuous grip on his sanity whilst being embroiled in a battle to keep a theatre festival from descending into populism because of the serpentine machinations of a representative from a corporate sponsor. Meanwhile his previous lover Ellen, and Gertrude in the ensuing production has taken another young man under her wing and Ophelia's understood is canoodling with the movie star that's been hired to play the dane.

Frankly it sounds terrible but because of some excellent scriptwriting, uniformally amazing cast and a willingness from the director to creep out of the television roots to create something that is often very filmic, this is an often exciting, provocative and hilarious piece of drama. Whilst snatches of Fraser can still be seen in the eyes of Gross, it's amazing to see him playing a drunk mad impresario with such gusto combined with some touching tenderness. The surprisingly cast Rachel McAdams (this first series was filmed pre-both The Notebook and Red Eye) is as funny as she's always been, instantly likeable and perfect when she convincingly demonstrates her Shakespearian chops as Ophelia - I've often wondered the extent to which actors playing actors giving good performance throw off that psychological framing and are simply presenting their own performance - in which case I'd love to see McAdams essaying this role further. The same could be said of Luke Kirby, who's Jack Crew makes a brilliantly mad, passionate dane. Also obviously noteworthy are the excellent comic performances from Stephen Ouimette as Oliver Welles the Hamlet Sr whose not quiet yet ready to give up on reality and Martha Burns the Gertrudesque pushy, bored actress who is eventually reinspired by former lover Geoffrey.

The real success is the hint of cynicism that largely pervades the programme in regards to theatre and the commercialisation thereof. The reason that some of the canon are never produced is not necessarily because of the commonly held belief that they're not very good, it's that the educational curriculum and routine mean that the top ten are always being produced. One of themes of the series is that the text has become stale through over production with audiences being there so that they can look like their more cultural than they probably are. But the knife runs deeper here and the gloriously serpentine Holly (Jennifer Irwin) who wants to go even further and drop the art theatre altogether in favour of musicals. The central message in the end is that if you present the classics in that same bored, restoration format that people might be expecting it will be boring. But play it with passion, some anger, touch of irreverance and with the rough edges intact it will find an audience. The irreverance extends to the title sequence in which two old theatre queens sing the following lyric in a bar were the beer has obviously been flowing for some time...

Cheer up Hamlet,
Chin up Hamlet,
Buck up you melancholy Dane.
So, your uncle is at hand,
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,
Buck up and sing the 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.

Overall it resembles a Nashville of the theatre and impeccably structured, tells its story slowly, revealing the deep seated enmities and relationships across its six episodes. I wouldn't say that it's hilariously funny though - more clever and satirical and in places beautifully sweet. There's also a blissful ignoring of the televisual vogue for cutting between scenes every minute or so; theatrically some scenes to run as long as they need to be and not because the writers and directors are trying to show how 'experimental' they can be - it takes some work to allow two people to sit around in a room for five minutes talking about theatrical politics or literature and still make it exciting and here its managed seemingly effortlessly. But I guarantee that when the infernal skull needs to be in the right place at the right time, you'll be on the edge of your seat as I was hoping that Geoffrey can get there in time.