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DVD Review: 'Slings and Arrows': To buy or not to buy?

By Carole Gordon

Available to order from Amazon via our PaulGross.org Collection

Slings & Arows season 1"A work of beautifully crafted genius from start to finish … Productions of this quality are rare indeed, and five stars seem barely sufficient." (Nigel Andrew, Mail on Saturday, UK). The Canadian 6-part miniseries 'Slings and Arrows' has had TV reviewers around the globe reaching for their superlatives. Can any show possibly warrant that kind of hyperbole? Well yes, actually, because this show really is that good.

Yet most viewers will likely not know of this show, let alone have seen it. For this is one of those gems which has been hidden away on the outer reaches of the cable channels, such as The Movie Network (Canada), Sundance (US) and Artsworld (UK).

The six-episode series centres around the fictional New Burbage Shakespeare Festival, show-casing life's dramas on-stage and off. But don't let the fact that this involves Shakespeare deter you. This is drama of rare quality; smart, slick, witty and brilliantly acted by an ensemble cast of Canada's finest.

The show starts on the opening night of the Festival's insipid production of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream', directed by the creatively moribund Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette). At the same time, in a derelict theatre on the other side of town, Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross) is struggling with faulty electrics and a blocked toilet as he tries to stage 'The Tempest'. Welles and Tennant were once close friends. Together they produced a definitive version of 'Hamlet', in the midst of which Tennant suffered a breakdown, jumping melodramatically into Ophelia's grave during a performance. The third character of the central triangle is Ellen Fanshaw (Martha Burns), who was once Tennant's lover, and Ophelia to his Hamlet.

Welles dies a disappointed man early in the piece, returning as an apparition to unsettle and taunt Tennant, much as the ghost of Hamlet's father haunts the Danish prince, only with rather more witty one-liners and existential musings.

Behind the scenes, the Festival's business manager (Mark McKinney) is manipulated by corporate witch, Holly Day (Jennifer Irwin), who envisages the future of the Festival – and her opportunity to make a fortune - as a Shakespeare theme park with fewer classics and more musicals, providing an interesting commentary on the clash between commercialism and creativity in the theatre.

Don McKellar does a wonderfully eccentric turn as a pretentious director, who tries to turn the Festival's new production of 'Hamlet' into a pyrotechnic pop opera and ends up duelling with Tennant.

The show also contains some delicious real life parallels. A Hollywood star, Jack Crew (Luke Kirby), has been brought into the Festival to attract the punters, echoing Keanu Reeves's turn as Hamlet in Winnipeg in 1995 (a connection confirmed in the production notes), but there may also be at least a passing nod to Paul Gross's own outing in the role at the Stratford Festival in 2000, a move dismissed by the Canadian media at the time as 'stunt casting'. The pundits then were proved wildly wrong; but this experience gives Gross's portrayal of the faith displayed by Tennant in Crew's ability to deliver, additional levels of poignancy.

Then there is Kate, understudy to Ophelia and on the cusp of getting her big break, who is played with great charm by Rachel McAdams, now just about to become one of Hollywood's hottest properties.

As well as being thoroughly involving, tightly structured and totally engaging, every single one of the characters is beautifully drawn, with cracking dialogue. In other hands, this show could have been full of snark and sarcasm, but this is clearly the work of people who love the theatre. It's infused with warmth and affection, while still recognizing that egos in the theatre can be as large as a medium-sized planet. As the theatre caretaker says, "If I was bothered by vomit, I wouldn't work in the theatre."

The old theatrical saying goes, "Leave them wanting more". Sit down to watch the first episode of 'Slings and Arrows' and chances are you'll still be there several hours later as the sixth episode ends, begging for more. Fortunately, there is more, with two more seasons already filmed.

The DVD also contains:

• trailer (which reveals rather a lot of the storyline, so save it until after you've seen the episodes)
• bloopers
• deleted scenes (well worth the price of admission)
• production notes
• cast information
• lyrics to the two songs specially written for the show, "Call the Understudy" and "Cheer Up Hamlet".

The latter song, which opens each episode of the show, brilliantly chastises the melancholy Prince:

"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!'"

Or, in this case, "To buy!" Definitely, "To buy!"

Slings and Arrows: A+
Extras: B+
Final grade: A


Slings & Arrows is available from Amazon via our PaulGross.org Collection.