Something is rotten in the state of New Burbage.
The main protagonist of Slings & Arrows, Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross), states his artistic philosophy with rare clarity in the first minute of the series: “the very best things happen just before the threat snaps”. It’s a romantic notion, and at least partly true – the number of artists who produce their greatest work at times of personal crisis cannot be mere coincidence. But it’s not a philosophy that promises a sustainable marriage of artistic fulfilment and personal happiness, as Geoffrey’s own situation shows: he drops that compelling comment to shut down a grown-up conversation about his theatre company’s obvious insolvency in favour of something he genuinely enjoys: inspiring actors, in this case with a discourse on the storm in The Tempest. He’s insightful and magnetic – until the theatre’s sub-par lighting system gives way. Of course, we learn later that Geoffrey’s personal thread rather notoriously snapped some time ago, but the picture we’re painted here is enough to understand his nature – a visionary artist, for sure, but hopelessly impractical and more than a little vainglorious.
It’s only on a re-watch that I realised how perfectly Geoffrey and Oliver Welles (Stephen Quimette) are contrasted as the series opens. While Geoffrey’s inspirational talk to his actors is cut short by his inability to finance a special effects system that works, we first see the Artistic Director of the well-heeled New Burbage Festival with his back to his players. He’s intently surveying the prop sheep that will feature in the production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream opening that evening. When he eventually deigns to give his actors a few cursory pointers – overriding a legitimate it haughty demand from company veteran Ellen (Martha Burns) to re-block a scene – he’s drawn away to talk business. Specifically, he discusses turning away unemployed actors from the evening’s performance to make room for corporate sponsors with the festival’s business manager Richard Smith-Jones (Mark McKinney). Then, he tackles the critically important matter of the wine to be served with festival dogsbody Anna (Susan Coyne), before moving on to address the travel arrangements for Jack Crew (Luke Kirby), an American movie star recruited to attract a broader audience to the forthcoming production of Hamlet. Meanwhile, he looks wistfully at an old photograph of himself with Ellen and Geoffrey backstage, at a production of the same play in a happier time. The gulf between Geoffrey Tenant’s shoestring ‘Theatre sans Argent’ and the moneyed but flabby and unhappy festival couldn’t be clearer. Something is obviously rotten in the state of New Burbage, or at least Oliver Welles.
The conflict between artistic integrity and commercial reality in theatre is a recurring theme in Slings and Arrows, particularly in this series and and most obviously in this episode. Its to the writers’ credit that, while their sympathies lie with the former, they don’t demonise the people who put too much emphasis on the latter. Oliver is clearly a man who has lost his way, not a deliberate sell-out. Richard Smith-Jones is, at least now, a bumbling but sympathetic character whose reaction to a crisis it the festival’s corporate sponsor (a takeover with plenty of corporate bloodletting) includes personal empathy with departing executives as well as anxiety about the festival finances. However, he is easily taken in by the charismatic and self-assured corporate bloodletter-in-chief, Holly Day (Jennifer Irwin), when she displays a financial interest in the festival and a personal interest in him. It’s naive but sweet, and promises to end badly.
If Richard’s naivety gives us a straightforward chuckle, then the sheer jadedness of Oliver going through the motions on opening night is a mite bleak. It’s with some justification that Ellen berates him for the jaded and lazy style that he has drifted into. The apex of this comes when he loses interest in watching his own production and asks the security guard Nahum (Rothaford Grey, making great work of a small but rewarding part) to switch the monitor over to the hockey game.
But it’s Geoffrey on screen, stealing the show. After finally breaking his landlord’s patience with a bum cheque to pay overdue rent, he manages to make theatre – and the evening news – by chaining himself to a building. By his own terms, being hauled away in a police car is a kind of triumph. It certainly seems more satisfying than Oliver’s evening after the show, being lauded to his face and derided in private.
The theatrical, larger-than-life characters in Slings & Arrows take some getting used to, but Quimette’s performance here is perfectly weighted. Oliver is playing the part of the urbane Artistic Director and raconteur, going through stories he’s told a hundred times, but there’s a mournful quality to him – his reaction on accidentally overhearing an unflattering opinion on him is genuinely poignant. It’s also evident how he pines for his earlier artistic greatness, both in his drunken ruminations on life after achieving perfection, and his memories of that Hamlet production starring Geoffrey. So, when he calls Geoffrey seeking both a reconciliation and a reckoning – and ends up simply getting a row – the exchanges are both hilarious and heartbreaking, even before he stumbles into the path of an oncoming meat-truck. As the warning horn blares, we get snapshots of the show’s future protagonists, none of them aware of the earthquake about to come, none of them particularly happy in their own lives – and all of them deeply in need of a shake-up.
Yes, that is a young Rachel McAdams playing apprentice actress Kate. Even in this supporting role, her quality is obvious.
The style of acting, as I mentioned above, is a bit ‘larger’ than most sit-coms. Once you accept that this is a show about the theatre, with theatrical people abounding, it’s easy to enjoy on its own terms.
The desire and ability of Ellen to attract considerably younger men, thankfully, is never treated as a crude source of humour on this show. However, a dalliance that begins in the next episode provides some of the most genuinely funny moments of this series.