TV Series featuring Shakespeare and his Plays: Slings and Arrows
Who says that popular TV series is mostly, if not always, about suspense and investigations such as the C.S.I., Fringe, Greys Anatomy, Castle and the like? Or it’s merely about the elite people on the Upper East side of the United States like Gossip Girl? Our favorite playwright of all times has once again entered the realm of modern entertainment of today specifically TV series that contains a number of episodes.
Slings and Arrows is a 3 season Canadian television series about a quirky theatre company, The New Burbage Theatre. It was written by three people: McKinney, Susan Coyne, and Bob Martin. It consists of three series of six episodes, each season built — literally and thematically — around a different Shakespearean play: Hamlet for youth, Macbeth for the middle age, and King Lear for the autumn years. Each season the actors mount a Shakespearean play, along with other events. The plays are luminous; the stagings inspired. We feel the singular exhilaration of live theatre.
Here are sneak peeks and summaries of the 3 seasons:
The show’s central characters are actor/director Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross), New Burbage artistic director Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette), and actress Ellen Fanshaw (Martha Burns), who seven years previously collaborated on a legendary production of Hamlet. Midway through one of the performances, Geoffrey suffered a nervous breakdown, jumped into Ophelia’s grave and then ran screaming from the stage. After that, he was committed to a psychiatric institution.
When the series begins, Geoffrey is in Toronto, running a small company, “Théâtre Sans Argent” (French for “Theatre Without Money”), on the verge of being evicted. Oliver and Ellen have stayed at New Burbage, where Oliver has gradually been commercializing his productions and the festival. On the opening night of the New Burbage’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Oliver sees Geoffrey on the news, chained to his theater. Heavily drunk, Oliver calls Geoffrey from a payphone and they argue about the past. Oliver then passes out in the street and is run over and killed by a truck bearing the slogan “Canada’s Best Hams.”
Geoffrey’s blistering eulogy at Oliver’s funeral about the state of the festival leads to him being asked to take over Oliver’s job on a temporary basis. After clashing with an old rival, Darren Nichols (Don McKellar), Geoffrey is reluctantly forced to take over directing the festival’s latest production of Hamlet. Making this difficult are Jack Crew (Luke Kirby), the insecure American film star cast as Hamlet; Geoffrey’s former lover Ellen, who is playing Gertrude and dating a much younger man; and Oliver, now haunting both Geoffrey and the festival as a ghost. Also in the play is apprentice actress Kate (Rachel McAdams), who finds herself falling for Jack.
On the business side of the festival, New Burbage manager Richard Smith-Jones (Mark McKinney) is seduced by one of his sponsors, American executive Holly Day (Jennifer Irwin) who wants to remake New Burbage into a shallow, commercialized “Shakespeareville”.
The second season follows the New Burbage production of Macbeth.
Richard is desperate for money to keep the company going, and Geoffrey, frustrated over what he sees as a lack of commitment from his actors, suggests downsizing the company. A new actor, Henry Breedlove (Geraint Wyn Davies), arrives to star in a production of Macbeth, which Geoffrey is reluctant to direct because of its supposed difficulty (though he doesn’t believe in the curse of “The Scottish Play“).
Richard finds funding in the form of a government grant that comes with a catch—it may be used only for “rebranding.” So, Richard hires an avant-garde advertising agency, Froghammer, to promote and rebrand the festival. Sanjay (Colm Feore), the head of Froghammer, launches a series of shock advertisements and manipulates Richard into accepting them.
Elsewhere at the festival, Darren has returned from an artistic rebirth in Germany to direct a version of Romeo and Juliet in which the actors don’t touch or even look at each other, much to the chagrin of the couple playing the lead roles. The festival’s administrator, Anna Conroy (Susan Coyne), copes with an influx of interns and begins a romance with a playwright doing a reading at the festival.
Ellen undergoes a tax audit, in preparation for which she is able to explain the “business purpose” of such theatrical necessities as lipstick and a push-up bra.
Meanwhile, Geoffrey obsesses over directing Macbeth, antagonizes his cast and crew, and starts seeing Oliver’s ghost again, all of which make Ellen fear for his sanity.
The third season follows the New Burbage production of King Lear.
The cast of Macbeth returns home after a successful run of the production on Broadway, where an old friend of Ellen’s (Janet Bailey) tells her to think about moving beyond New Burbage. As Richard tries to cope with being a success, Anna must deal with a group of stranded musicians and Darren is back in town, this time to direct a new musical, East Hastings.
Geoffrey, meanwhile, has cast an aging theatre legend, Charles Kingman (William Hutt) as Lear, despite everyone’s fears that the role will kill him. As rehearsals continue, Charles terrorizes Sophie (Sarah Polley), the actress playing Cordelia. Sophie is also involved in the rivalry between the young actors in Lear and the young actors in the musical, whose success soon outshadows the troubled Shakespeare production.
As things spiral out of control, Oliver returns to haunt and help, and Geoffrey seeks therapy from an unlikely source.
Introducing King Lear in Season 3:
All episodes can be watched through youtube. I’d conclude with my favorite scene and character: Ophelia’s madness