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Slings and Arrows television series

Updated on October 16, 2010


This first appeared on my blog in 2007. It was removed after some technical difficulties at that site, and so I am reposting it here.

It was just a couple of months ago that I first heard about the Canadian TV series Slings and Arrows , and I have already watched all 6 episodes from each of the 3 seasons that the series was on air. It is the most brilliant television series I have seen in a very long time, maybe ever.

The series revolves around a Canadian theatre festival that performs Shakespeare each year, as well as musicals and plays by Canadian playwrights. I’ve never once attended a play in Canada, nor have I ever acted onstage, so the setting is completely foreign to me. The series is very Canadian (or so I have gathered from what the actors say in the interviews on the DVDs), and it is very much about the life of a stage actor. I suppose that this should exclude me from some of the substance of the series. But I didn’t feel excluded at any point while I was viewing Slings and Arrows. Rather, I felt invited into a world I would never otherwise enter.

The series is beautifully constructed. The first season surrounds the company’s production of Hamlet, the second a staging of Macbeth, and the third a performance of King Lear. Throughout the 3-season series, we get to know the actors and administrators who run the festival, we see their woes and joys, and we begin to care about them a great deal. The artistic director dies in the first season (that’s not a spoiler; it’s part of how the series is introduced on the cover of the DVD), to be replaced by a protege and friend of his from years earlier. The new director, who comes aboard somewhat reluctantly, is haunted by his deceased mentor. It all makes for a very humorous treatment of the staging of Hamlet, but a humorous treatment that is also very touching. (I actually cried several times watching the series, and I almost never cry in movies.)

The structure of the three seasons is beautiful in its handling of three of Shakespeare’s four great tragedies. In the characters Hamlet, Macbeth, and Lear and their stories, we have a lovely story arc for our television series, tracing the stages of adult life. Hamlet helps us explore a young man’s world, Macbeth a middle age man’s, and Lear an old man’s. The series explores success and failure, madness and “normalcy,” and so many of the other great themes of Shakespeare’s body of work. It is perfectly structured around these tragedies, with a clear understanding of what tragedy as a genre does in its own structure and what it might have to say to audiences.

That’s not to say that the series is tragic. No, it is a perfectly structured comedy. (And it is absolutely hilarious besides.) It follows the story arc of a traditional comedy, both within the action of each individual season, and in the overall story arc of the series as a whole. It does explore some of the murky, dark aspects that Shakespeare’s comedies like to broach, all while keeping it more or less “safe,” as per Shakespeare’s own methods. And it ends as every comedy should, happily and with love all around. Well, not all around... the “bad guys” certainly get their comeuppance.

I suppose that no series is for everyone, and I am sure that there must be some people who would not enjoy  Slings and Arrows  at all. It is probably only for those who have a little interest in the theatre, Canadian culture, life crises, artistic endeavors, aging, humor, relationships, or being human. But anyone else would probably not like the series much.

© 2007 Shelly Bryant


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