Sunday, January 11, 2015

TV Watch (or Listen): "Cheer up, Hamlet! Chin up, Hamlet! Buck up, you melancholy Dane!" -- welcome to "Slings and Arrows"

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, ya sulky brat, the answer is: "Ta 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!

by Ken

In the clip, that's Graham Harley as veteran New Burbage Festival trouper Cyril -- seen here, as always, in the company of fellow trouper Frank, played by Michael Polley -- belting out "Cheer up, Hamlet!," the rousing opening theme song seen and heard over the opening credits comfortably nestled after the opening scene of each of the six episodes of Season 1 of Slings and Arrows, the show that for sublime season after season after season (but alas, only those three seasons) between 2003 and 2006 took us behind the scenes of the fictional New Burbage Festival, said to bear a more than passing resemblance to the Stratford (Ontario) Festival.


we see the forces of crass commercialism, not to mention sheer artistic mediocrity, doing their best to stifle whatever spark of vision and creative longing still lurks in the hearts and minds of the festival's core company as well as the individual-season veterans and rising hopefuls on hand for the summer. And in each season, peopled by a cast of simply astonishing players fueled by simply dazzling writing distributed over a set of ingeniously diverse plotlines, the most amazing hilarity and delight ensue.

Oliver and Geoffrey
Each season has as one of its plot lines the deliciously precarious making of a New Burbage production of a Shakespeare play -- Hamlet in the first series, Macbeth in the second, and King Lear in the third. All of this is presided over by festival artistic director Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross) in queasy partnership with general manager Richard Smith-Jones (Mark McKinney), who actually does love theater, but in a "who says art can't be popular?" way. Geoffrey is a onetime New Burbage protégé of longtime artistic director Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette), under whose leadership the festival both grew into an ever larger and ever more financially precarious commercial enterprise even as it deteriorated into morass of artistic mediocrity. Paul has recovered more than most people thought possible from the crippling trauma of his brief New Burbage run as Hamlet under Oliver's direction, but that's not the same thing as having actually recovered.

In each season Geoffrey is untiringly abetted by long-suffering assistant Anna (Susan Coyle) and beset by an old nemesis, the faddishly flamboyant and fraudulent director Darren Nichols (Don McKellar). And, oh yes, in each season New Burbage diva Ellen Fanshaw (Martha Burns), a onetime costar and flame of Geoffrey's (although she's playing Gertrude now, back in the day she was Ophelia opposite his fateful Hamlet), does her best, despite the prevailing conditions, to do real acting work in the festival's major Shakespeare production, and otherwise sublimates her artistic frustrations in drink and a succession of virile young men.

As it happens, two of the above-enumerated actors are among the three creator-writers of Slings and Arrows. I wonder if you can guess just from the above admittedly cheesy character thumbnails which two they are. I'll tell you before we're done, but I'll tell you now that I'm not sure I would have guessed either.

Okay, for now I'll tell you this much: One of these three -- Paul Gross (New Burbage artistic director Geoffrey Tennant), Don McKellar (crackpot director Darren Nichols), or Mark McKinney (bean-counting general manager Richard Smith-Jones) -- is one of the three creator-writers of Slings and Arrows.

I've been wanting to write about Slings and Arrows for quite a while, and even more so since I cracked open my complete-package Blu-ray replacement for my old DVD editions of the first two series. It wasn't that the DVD editions necessarily needed replacement, but that it didn't cost me that much more to buy the complete Blu-ray package than to complete my DVD holdings with the third series. Plus assorted special features were promised, and as frequent readers may know, I'm a sucker for special features, especially with an artistic product of this quality. (A lot, if not all, of the series appears to be online too.) Not surprisingly, I've been failing, resoundingly. I'm despairing of communicating just how extraordinary, and how funny, the show is.

If you do a quick online search, or just riffle through the Amazon reviews, you'll find a staggering profusion of effusions so uniformly, over-the-toply enthralled as to suggest a cult, and to suggest a product of the typically dubious quality of most such cult faves. What can I tell you except that in this case all the effusers happen to be right?

At one point I did get as far as transcribing a tiny exchange from the opening episode, presumably persuaded that it was going to lead me to something. It didn't, but here it is. It takes place during the season-premiere of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Oliver's "tenth Dream." Oliver is watching the performance on a TV monitor along with Nahum, the festival's sort of general factotum.

OLIVER: It's dreadful, isn't it?
NAHUM: The production values are very high.
OLIVER: Very diplomatic of you, Nahum. [They continue watching.] Oh God! There's not one moment of truth in this whole production.
NAHUM: Truth can be a very dangerous thing. Before I left Nigeria, I directed a production of Ken Saro-Wiwa's The Wheel, which was perhaps too openly critical of the Abacha regime.
OLIVER: How did it go over?
NAHUM: Oh, the soldiers came and burned our sets and beat the actors with sticks.
OLIVER: Thanks for the perspective.
Later, spiraling drunkenly downward, Oliver sees a TV news feature showing his old protégé Geoffrey chaining himself to the pathetic space from which his ragtag theater company is being evicted for nonpayment of rent. As Oliver's state of drunkenness approaches stupor level, he manages to get Geoffrey on the phone, and despite repeated hangups manages to deliver the message: "I just wanted to tell you how proud I am of you. Chaining yourself to a condemned building to defend the right of the insane to put on shows that no one will ever see."

In case it hasn't become obvious yet, I still haven't figured out how to write about Slings and Arrows, so I thought I might take advantage of the fact that this is a blogslot where we have often listened to music and instead of trying to make that case, just present the opening and closing theme songs. I'm including the lyrics, not just because they're clever and droll but because you know you want to sing along, and it sounds so simple, but the words are in fact kind of tricky. have to learn them if you're going to sing along, and admit it, you really, really want to sing along, don't you?

So let's listen first to the closing theme, and then to the opening themes of Seasons 2 and 3, themed to Macbeth and King Lear respectively.

Closing theme: "Call the understudy;
I can't go on tonight"

Call the understudy;
I can't go on tonight.
I'm drinking with my buddy;
I'm getting' good and tight.
Before they raise the curtain
I'll be higher than a kite,
so call the understudy;
I can't go on tonight.
Tell the cast and crew to break a leg.
(Break a leg!)
Roll me out another bloody keg.
(Bloody keg!)
I need to ease the pain that life can bring,
And liquor is what
will hit the spot;
the play is not the thing.
So call the understudy;
I think it's only right.
My diction will be muddy;
I'll never find my light.
Before the intermission I'll be pissin' on a sprite,
so call the understudy!
I can't go on! (He can't go on!)
I won't go on! (He shan't go on!)
I can't go on tonight! (Damn right!)

Season 2: "Call me superstitious, or cowardly, or weak"
("I won't play Mackers")

Call me superstitious, or cowardly, or weak,
but I'll never play a character
whose name one dare not speak.
I'll play Hamlet, in dublet and hose,
or either of the Dromeos,
but sorry, I won't play Mackers.
I'll play Richard the Third, with a hump and a wig,
or Henry the Eighth, that selfish pig,
but sorry, I don't do Mackers.
Every soul that plays this role
risks injury or death.
I'd rather sweep the bloody stage
than ever do
So gimme King Lear, Cleopatra,
Romeo, Juliet, doesn't mattra,
I'll play them all for free.
But I'd be crackers
to take on Mackers.
You see, I'm skittish about the Scottish tragedy.

Season 3: "When life takes its toll, when fate treats you bad ("It's good to take a walk in the rain")

When life takes its toll,
when fate treats you bad,
you used to be king,
and now you've been had,
alone with your fool,
you think you'll go mad,
it's nice to take a walk in the rain.
A stomp through a storm
is what I'd advise,
when people you trust
tell nothing but lies,
and kidnap your friend
and gouge out his eyes,
it's nice to take a walk in the rain.
You say your daughters
are evil plotters;
a pitter-patter shower will keep you sane.
When all has been said,
and all have been slain,
it's good to take a walk in the rain,
for several hours,
helps to have a howl in the rain,
without your clothes on,
nice to take a walk in the rain.
The songs, I should say, are by Lisa Lambert, Bob Martin, and Greg Morison. Bob Martin, I should add, is one of the show's three creator-writers, and appears in a brief but delicious role in Season 1. The other two creator-writers are Susan Coyle (Anna, pictured at right) and Mark McKinney (Richard).

Also, the entire series -- all 18 episodes -- was directed by Paul Wellington. He obviously deserves to be mentioned.

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