Slings and Arrows, Season 1

My personal connection to the show

In 2008, I was in grad school studying Shakespeare. My roommate Robbie invited me to watch this show on DVD. I loved the show at the first watch and bought my own copy soon after. I also shared watching them with the woman who would later become my wife. Watching this show was our unofficial first date!

So as you can see, I clearly have a bias and a nostalgic connection to this show, but I think it has garnered enough praise that I can justify my admiration of it. The creators are Tony award-winning writers. The actors are acclaimed stars on stage and screen, all of whom have experience with Shakespeare, musicals, improv-comedy, or all three! So we have a comedy written by talented theater practitioners, acted by professional Shakespearean actors, and half the dialogue is Shakespeare? Was this show made specifically for me?

The premise of the Series

Something is rotten at the New Burbage Shakespeare Festival- a fictional Canadian Shakespeare company that is loosely based on the Stratford Shakespeare festival. The Artistic Director, Oliver Wells has died in suspicious circumstances, right before he was to start rehearsing “Hamlet.” Wells’ successor is a volatile actor-manager named Geoffry Tennet, who, in addition to dealing with the work-a-day demands of running a theater, the backstage drama of directing a play, his own romantic feelings for lead actress Ellen, is also having ghostly visits from his old mentor, Olliver! What follows is a funny, tragic, bittersweet comedy about drama. It’s The Office for Shakespeare Nerds!

The Cast

The drama centers around the actors and actresses in the New Burbage Festival as they rehearse a Shakespeare play; Hamlet in Season 1, Macbeth in Season 2, and King Lear in Season 3. The subplots are more often than not workplace drama. Ironically, though the main cast parallels hamlet, the management team of Richard St-John (with a hyphen, played by Mark McKinney) and Holly Day (Jennifer Irwin), are unknowingly playing Lord and Lady Macbeth. The two of them plan to sabotage the production and eventually replace all Shakespeare shows with a more profitable musical-theatre-centered festival. It’s deliciously ironic that McKinney plays the scheming musical-loving Richard, since he himself is one of the Tony-award-winning writers of the Drowsy Chaperone.

Paul Gross as Geoffrey Tennet

I’ve said before that Gorss gives a kind of animal intensity as Hamlet and Geoffrey, and this is especially true in Season 1. When we first meet him, Geoffrey lost his girlfriend, his sanity, and his career as a respected actor. Then he has to return to the theatre where the man who betrayed him works, and is forced to take over this same theater as Artistic Director.

Geoffrey’s Journey

If you’ve never seen the show before, I should warn you, GEOFFREY IS AN ABSOLUTE JERK in the first few episodes. Like I said, he starts out hating his job and pushing away everyone who comes in contact with him. However, little by little, he re-discovers why he loves theater, Shakespeare, and his friends and colleagues. Look at how he goes from a sarcastic pedant to a real director as he teaches these businesspeople how to act!

Rachel McAdams As Kate

Slings and Arrows Is the Show Rachel McAdams (and All of Us) Deserved
Rachel McAdams and Luke Kirby in “Slings and Arrows”

The most truly lovely thing about season 1 in particular, is watching Rachel McAdams’ charming and heartfelt performance as Kate. She plays a struggling actor who deeply loves the theater and dreams of becoming a respected actress. Her dreams are tested however when she falls in love with one of her co-stars and is accused of sleeping her way into a better role.

Rachel McAdams quote: I did do some Shakespeare on film, it's really  difficult...

McAdams is the perfect ingenue in this show: She is naive, charming, Ernest, and kind. You watch Kate struggle and desperately want her luck to turn around and then rejoice when she gets to fulfill her dreams.

 As Kate on Slings, she’s the understudy who knows better — happy to be cast, sad that she’s not really cast, and trying not to be bitter that the actual Ophelia is such a wreck. Her smarts and capability of course find her pairing off with Jake (Kirby), who’s more famous but less theatrical.

Slings and Arrows Is the Show Rachel McAdams (and All of Us) Deserved
By Margaret Lyons. Vulture Magazine, Aug, 2015.

Then you remember… she was Regina George! It’s easy to overlook how good an actor Ms. McAdams is since she frequently is overshadowed by her co-stars. Much like Ophelia herself, people heap all the praise on Hamlet and forget Ophelia. When I keep in mind the breadth of emotions Ms. McAdams has to portray, and how incredibly different this role is from her role in Mean Girls, I feel compelled to say her acting rivals Paul Gross as Geoffrey Tennet

Season 1 Retrospective

Geoffrey: “Are you dead, or am I insane?

Oliver’s ghost: “I don’t see how those things are mutually exclusive.”

S&A Episode 3

My favorite episodes

I recommend watching all six episodes of Season 1 consecutively, but I can’t deny, some episodes are better than others, especially in Season 1. The first three episodes mainly focus on Oliver’s death and the tragedy of the falling out between Geoffrey, Oliver, and Ellen. This is important for backstory purposes, but it’s a little uncomfortable and sad to watch. My favorite episodes are episodes 4,5 and 6. Here’s why:

Episode 4: Outrageous fortune

After a drunken sword fight at his ex-girlfriend’s house, Geoffrey winds up in jail. This is his rock bottom. He even paraphrases Hamlet’s most famous speech as he contemplates ending it all in his cell. Thankfully, Oliver’s Ghost talks him out of it. Once he’s released, Geoffrey is re-energized and has a new purpose in life- directing Hamlet. Again, after three episodes of Geoffrey hurting, irritating, and sometimes even stabbing people, it’s nice to see our hero do what he was put here to do.

Episode 5:A Mirror Up to Nature

Geoffrey is finally fully committed to making the best Hamlet he can be, but he’s having problems with his Ophelia.

Geoffrey’s star is missing! With the production stalled, Geoffrey and Ellen finally have it out, and finally, share their tragic past with each other. Now the race is on to, “Repent what’s past, avoid what is to come, and fulfill their promise to Oliver.

So I hope I’ve articulated why I love this show and its characters. Just like anyone who’s ever had a boring office job loves and recognizes the characters from “The Office,” those of us in the theater recognize the crazy directors, the hopeful understudies, the divas, and the money-grubbing management. These characters feel like our friends and colleagues and they care so much about the universal dogma of “The show must go on,” no matter what kind of agonizing problems slow it down. Whether it be death, dementia, or a dislocated knee caused by a chameleon. the show within-this incredibly clever comedy about drama will catch your conscience… and your heart.

Play ME OUT CYRILL!

Hamlet (2000)

I’ve talked about some great Hamlets and some awful Hamlets. Now I want to talk about one that I find very much a mixed bag. The direction is incredible, for the most part it’s very well cast, and it has some truly memorable visuals, even though they’re very much rooted in the world-weary pre-9/11 New York of Y2K.

The mid 90s were the golden age for teenage Shakespeare adaptations with films like “Romeo+Juliet,” “10 Things I Hate About You,” and “O.” All of these films chose to do Shakespeare in modern day, and use youthful actors in the main parts. Since many teen novels and stories feature a brooding young protagonist dealing with the loss of a parent, while trying to find his/her place in the world, it makes sense Hollywood would continue this trend with Hamlet.

The trailer markets this as a sort of “cool Hamlet,” which is more about drama and exciting visuals then long-winded speeches. Director / screenwriter Michael Almereyda has a lot of interesting experience that translates well in this film., in addition to making films he also makes documentaries and short films. I think he wanted to tell this story like a documentary of a high-profile murder case, one where one of the victims happens to be an amateur short-film maker

The Acting

I actually really liked Ethan Hawke as Hamlet. He has a real effortless delivery of Shakespeare and he plays Hamlet as a troubled art-student type of kid who wants to see life through a film lens instead of dealing with the chaos of real life. The film also has some creative staging choices for Hake’s soliloquies. Look at how they staged “To Be Or Not To Be,” in a way that though dated, is a clever way of establishing Hamlet’s worldview. This Hamlet wants to be an action hero like Schwartzenegger, but is cursed with a conscience, anxiety, and fear of the unknown:

Sam Shepherd as the Ghost

Before he was a movie star, Ethan Hawke was an accomplished stage actor appearing frequently in the gritty western-inspired dramas of playwright Sam Shepherd. It seems appropriate that for Hamlet, the ghost of his father was played by one of Hawke’s theatrical mentors, plus as I said in my post on ghosts, it’s very true to form having the ghost played by a playwright

Sam Shepherd as the Ghost in Hamlet

Shepherd is my favorite incarnation of The Ghost. He’s simultaneously fatherly and terrifying, he’s mournful and hopeful. He doesn’t have any special effects to detract from his performance, nor is he just a disembodied voice. The understated nature of Shepherd’s performance works perfectly for film!

Polonius and his family

I have to give special mention to Julia Styles (Ophelia), Liev Schrieber (Laertes), and Bill Murray (Polonius). All their scenes are great and they play off each other very well. You really feel bad for this family which winds up broken by Hamlet and the king, even though they did nothing wrong.

I particularly love this staging of Act I, Scene iii, where Laertes gives his sister Ophelia some advice before leaving for France. Their father Polonius in turn, gives Laertes some fatherly advice, concluding in the famous line: “This above all, to thine own self be true.”

Liev Schrieber as Laertes Shrieber was a great choice for a more movie -like American Laertes. He has a distinguished way of talking and a no-nonsense air about him that works well for the son of a corporate executive like Murray’s Polonius. At the same time, you can sense his boiling hatred of Hamlet, even in this first scene. He’s a great antagonist and plays well with Murray and Hawke.

Bill Murray As Polonius If you read my review of Branaugh’s Hamlet, you noticed I said that I thought his casting was terrific with two exceptions. One of which was casting Richard Briars as Polonius. Branaugh, (and Derek Jacobi in the stage production that inspired the movie), chose to direct Polonius as having no humor whatsoever- to play him as Claudius’ right-hand man. A controlling and micromanaging father who is obsessed with keeping up appearances. While Briars is a fantastic actor, you lose a lot of Polonius without giving him at least a little comic pedantry.

Bill Murry has no problem balancing the funny and business-like aspects of Polonius’ character. Like Peter Venkmen in Ghostbusters, he takes himself too seriously and loves to hear himself talk, and lke his character in Lost In Translation, he has a great deal of fatherly tenderness with Julia Styles. I also love the bit where he puts some extra money in Laertes’ backpack. This Polonius isn’t a fool, but he’s also a bit of a worry wart- and his fretting over his kids blinds him to what Hamlet is really up to.

Julia Styles as Ophelia As I mentioned, Ms. Styles did a number of great Shakespeare movies in the mid 90s, including her iconic portrayal of Kat Stratford in “10 Things I hate About You.” Sadly, the director didn’t give her much to do in the fisrt half of this movie. Her Ophelia mostly looks pretty and does as little as possible. The only moment that stood out to me was the look of guilt on her face after Hamlet discovers she’s wearing a wire in the “Get Thee To A Nunnery” scene.

Styles shines however in The Mad scene. I think her strong personality clashed in the first half of the film with the rather weak and docile Ophelia they were going for. Thankfully, during the Mad Scene, she screams, gets in people’s faces, and has a lot of fury towards the men in the scene. Also, putting the scene in the famous Guggenheim Art Museum works very well- it’s a public place, so anything Ophelia says makes Claudius look bad. Also, the spiral design of the museum feeds into the disorientation Ophelia feels without her father. Finally, the art itself calls back her love of photography and Hamlet’s love of film.

The BEST MOUSETRAP EVER!

A lot of the scenes and soliloquies of this film are very hit-and-miss, but the one moment of the play Almereyda absolutely nails is the play-within-a-play in Act III, Scene i. First of all, the director cuts all the intentionally bad dialogue and turns the play into a silent film-within-a-film, with lots of homemade charm and disturbing imagery. Mr. Almereyda carefully adapted the often-cut dumb show that happens before the play, and used that to fashion Hamlet’s short film:

  • [Hautboys play. The dumb show enters.]2015
    Enter a King and a Queen very lovingly; the Queen embracing
    him and he her. She kneels, and makes show of protestation
    unto him. He takes her up, and declines his head upon her
    neck. He lays him down upon a bank of flowers. She, seeing
    him asleep, leaves him. Anon comes in a fellow, takes off his
    crown, kisses it, pours poison in the sleeper’s ears, and
    leaves him. The Queen returns, finds the King dead, and makes
    passionate action. The Poisoner with some three or four Mutes,
    comes in again, seem to condole with her. The dead body is
    carried away. The Poisoner wooes the Queen with gifts; she
    seems harsh and unwilling awhile, but in the end accepts
    his love.

Not only does this film fulfill its dramatic function, (making Claudius betray his guilt), but we also get a window into Hamlet’s mind. We see how he sees his father, his mother, and his life before his father’s death. As an added bonus, the film is subtle enough that Claudius would’ t be able to make sense of it unless he had actually murdered Hamlet’s father.

My problems with the film:

Like I said, my problem isn’t with Hawke. My problem is the rest of the film. Some actors just mumble their lines. Sometimes the director wastes time with pointless film clips which only seem to exist to remind you that “This Hamlet is artsy.” But my biggest problem with the film is the pace. Almereyda does a great job paring down Hamlet to its core drama- Hamlet vs Claudius and the poor people who get caught in the crossfire. Though he is sparing with dialogue, he wastes time with silence. A lot of the film is the characters sitting around watching TVs, looking at photos, sleeping, or just staring off into space. In addiiton, the delivery is very mixed. Like I said, Hawke’s quiet, understated delivery works very well, but not for every character. To varying degrees, everyone in the film is guilty of what I call “movie Shakespeare acting,” which is to say, being so afraid of sounding like Oliver and Branaugh, that they mumble their lines, slow the pace down, and turn the emotion down to nearly zero, because they don’t want their performances to appear over-the-top. The thing is, Hamlet is a tragedy about people who are fighting for their lives and souls. A little quiet introspection is important, but too much of it drags the play or the movie down.

The STUPID ENDING

As you read in my post on the duel in Hamlet, Shakespeare’s play, ends in a fencing match where Laertes betrays Hamlet by fighting with a poisoned sword, which Hamlet eventually uses to kill Laertes and Claudius. It’s a powerful moment of poetic justice. In Almereyda’s version, LAERTES JUST SHOOTS HAMLET.

To be fair, the whole scene doesn’t work well in a 21st-century context. Laertes just told Hamlet to literally “Go to Hell,” but then in the very next scene Hamlet agrees to play against him in a friendly fencing match? Only a complete idiot wouldn’t know that something suspicious is up. In every good production I’ve seen, Hamlet knows this is a trap, but he does it anyway. I think he intends to let God decide their quarrel like in old-fashioned judicial combat.

Since dueling isn’t practiced anymore (except in episodes of The Office), it seems bizarre that Hawke’s Hamlet would agree to be in the same room with Laertes, let alone fight with him. I wish the director had done something, anything to justify Hamlet’s choice to fence with Laertes, or just do away with the fencing entirely and have them fight over Ophelia’s grave.

The other thing I hate about this scene is that it isn’t a fight; it’s a murder and a very stupid one. Laertes shoots Hamlet but instead of shooting him at a distance, he walks right over and shoots Hamlet, close enough for Hamlet to turn the gun on Laertes. This makes Shreiber’s character seem incredibly stupid and completely unsympathetic. Not only is it stupid, but it’s also cowardly. Hamlet is unarmed, and can’t defend himself against a bullet. If Laertes had a knife, Hamlet would’ve at least have had a fighting chance. As it is, we get a pointless, bloody end to a great character, and Laertes does it in a cowardly ignoble way.

The Film’s Influence

Whether or not you’ve seen and liked this film, it definitely influenced one of the most well-received Hamlets of recent memory.The Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2009 TV movie of Hamlet takes a lot of cues from Michael Almereyda’s film.

  1. The Concept- Court intrigue Both films immerse themselves in the trappings of wealth and status in American and British society. In Act I, Scene iii Kyle Mcglaughlin as Claudius holds large press conferences, surrounds himself with bodyguards, security cameras, and lives in the luxury Hotel Elsinore. Patrick Stewart in the same scene holds an exclusive black-tie soiree attended by bishops, men in tails and women in ballgowns. Plus the British version keeps the monarchy, it just updates it with marble pillars, spotless floors, and golden chains and thrones.
  2. Watching and being watched– Both films start off with security camera footage, and shots of security cameras become a running motif that demonstrates Claudius’ control over Hamlet’s life. Also in both films Hamlet defies his uncle by filming him back with his own camera.
  3. Updating Gertrude One of the flaws of Shakespeare’s text is that he judges Gertrude far too harshly. To Hamlet, it is incomprehensible that his mother could fall in love and marry anyone else. I like that in both versions, Gertrude is still relatively young, and the Claudius figure is relatively charming and handsome, while the ghost seems warlike and cold. You get the sense that Hamlet’s father was a good king, but a lousy husband. Little touches like this flesh out her character, and make us compelled to see what happens to her.
  4. You cannot call it love; for at your age2460
    The heyday in the blood is tame, it’s humble,
    And waits upon the judgment; 

So, to be brief, this version isn’t the best, but it has plenty of clever set pieces, good performances, and early 2000s angst to trigger any millennial’s nostalgia goggles. More than that, I think later productions are indebted to this little movie for paving the way to bring Hamlet into the 21st century.

My Least Favorite Hamlets

Just like my favorite Hamlets, I want to emphasize that this is all subjective. Some Hamlets I don’t like because of the production, some because of the acting, and some because of EVERYTHING, but I encourage you to check these out anyway because you may disagree with me, and even the worst Hamlet is still a lot of fun.

#7: Andrew Scott

Just as one of my favorite Hamlets played Sherlock Holmes, one of my least favorites played James Moriarty. I’ll grant you that Scott has a unique acting style- his gestures are fluid and yet frenetic. His voice jumps up and down pitches seemingly at random, which serves him well when he’s playing characters who seem mentally unbalanced. I’ll also grant you that he has a fresh take, but honestly, that take is- what if Hamlet is a bad person? Scott’s Hamlet is cold, full of internalized rage and fear and he treats everyone around him appallingly. He’s never warm or kind to anyone and is often belligerent, condescending, or outright disgusting. The part where he picks up Ophelia’s corpse and hugs her is very unpleasant to watch and I felt very sad for both her and poor Horatio. In short, nobody could say “Good Night Sweet Prince,” to this guy with a straight face.

#6: Mel Gibson, 1990 Film Directed by Franco Zeffirelli

This film was so disappointing. Every Shakespeare fan knows that Zeffirelli made one of the most iconic film versions of Romeo and Juliet, which is still beloved after 50 years. So it’s deeply ironic, that he also produced an utterly forgettable version of Hamlet with human punching bag Mel Gibson in the title role.

#5: Maxamillian Shell

To be honest, this one isn’t all that bad. Shell is a talented actor, especially when you consider that English is his second language. And the fact that he won an Oscar a few years after this shows that mainly the problem with this film was the direction. His delivery is slow, dreary, with little vocal variety and no interesting cinematography. That said, you know he understands the part and does his best. My advice, don’t watch the film unless you’re watching the Mystery Science Theater Episode:

#4: Simba In The Lion King

Like I said in the previous post, it might be debatable whether or not The Lion King is Hamlet, but if it is, I really hate this interpretation. Simba is not given time to mourn his father or contemplate revenge. Nor is he especially concerned with his kingdom for most of the movie. In essence, he’s a spoiled brat, who just happens to be the heir to the throne, so he is the only one who can overthrow Scar and take the kingdom. Really, every time Simba is onscreen I keep hoping Nathan Lane will start singing and drown him out. To paraphrase Hamlet himself:

This twerp cries out, and speaks each petty line of dialogue as grossly as an unwashed lion’s mane.

#3: Me

I haven’t had the privilege to play Hamlet, though I have come close many times. I’ve done scenes in classes and during recitals, recorded monologues, even sung the Gravedigger’s song online. The closest I actually got to doing the whole part in front of an audience was reading Hamlet in front of my high school class.

In 2020 when I had a little free time during quarantine (like many of us), I decided to record a short video for a lecture on Hamlet, where I did a clip of “To Be Or Not To Be.” I was never happy with it, but let me know what you think:

#2: Arnold Schwartzenegger in “Last Action Hero”

“Wait!” You’re saying, “Wasn’t Schwartzenegger on the Good Hamlets list too?” Yes. Yes, he was. Like I said yesterday, when it works, “Last Action Hero” is a cheeky, self-aware parody of all action movies that fully acknowledges that Hamlet is their true progenitor. Sadly though, when it’s not doing that, it’s a poorly directed, unfocused, dull mess. Like a lot of Hollywood blockbusters, I think this movie eventaully was taken over by studio heads who really didn’t get the joke. Having Arnold’s character Jake brood when he discovers he’s fictional just wastes time and goes nowhere.

Nick – “This is a wonderful moment for me, Mr. Slater. I’ve never met a fictional character before. How new and exciting this must all be for you.”

Jack Slater – “Hey, I just found out I was imaginary. I mean, how would you feel is somebody made you up? Your job, your marriage, your kids. Oh, yeah. Let’s push his son off the building. Gives you nightmares for the rest of your life. But you’re fictional, so who cares? I’m sorry. But I don’t find this new and exciting to discover that my whole life has been a damn movie.”

Arnold Schwartzenegger (as Jack Slater)

This moment in particular explains the problem with the film- it keeps wanting to be dramatic when it doesn’t need to be. The film loses focus when it starts commenting about action movies instead of gently poking fun and parodying them. Ironically, when Schwartzenegger is playing Hamlet he does some of the best acting in the movie. So I love this film when it’s a clever pastiche, but I hate it when it’s trying to give a fictional character depth.

#1: EVERYONE IN “STRANGE BREW”

What happens when you try to make a comedy out of “Hamlet,” and then get rid of Hamlet? In this case, you get THE WORST SHAKESPEARE ADAPTATION I’VE EVER SEEN!!! I simply can’t believe this exists- a comedy starring Rick Moranis, Dave Thomas, Mel Blanc, and MAX VON SYDOW FROM THE SEVENTH SEAL?

If you read a lot of my posts, you know I enjoy trying to find Shakespearean tropes in movies that aren’t intentionally Shakespeare. Heck, I even did one about Hamlet and Disney’s Coco. So I know you might be saying to yourself, “Why is he claiming this silly Canadian comedy about drunk guys is Shakespeare? He must be reading too far into this.”

Nope. No I am not. Look at the facts:

  1. The main location is called Elsinore.
  2. The head of Elsinore beer is murdered by his brother.
  3. The dead brother comes back as a ghost.
  4. The heroine’s name is PAM, just add a -let and you clearly see her significance to the plot. She even gets declared insane halfway through the movie.

Weirdly, the 1980s and 90s had a lot of comedies that used Shakespeare as a framework; from Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy to Porkys 2, which hinges around a production of Romeo and Juliet, to later comedies like “Get Over It,” “She’s All That,” and “Ten Things I Hate About You.” It seems that a lot of writers wanted to try their hands at reworking Shakespeare for comedy.

But what about this version? IT’S TERRIBLE. The film doesn’t even focus on Pam, the Hamlet analogue, and instead focuses on the idiotic hockey hooligans Bob and Doug Mackenzie played with a tedium that would make Polonius cry to be stabbed again. The germ film was actually this sketch from the Second City Improv Troupe’s TV show: SCTV:

So like a lot of TV stars aiming for the big screen, Moranis and Thomas decided to turn these sketches into a movie, and they don’t even hide how lazy they are taking the exact same premise of this sketch and repeating it verbatim in the movie:

So the premise is, much like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, these hapless idiots find themself caught up in the court drama of Elsinore, only this time it’s a beer company, not a castle, and they actually help the hero, not the villain, though completly by accident.

So who’s bright idea was it to pair these Canadian donut munchers with Hamlet?

According to Mental Floss, it was Thomas’ own idea to base the film on Hamlet, and the script went through many stages of re-interpretation of the play:

Dave Thomas studied English Literature in college, and thought it would be funny to class up Bob and Doug’s big-screen debut by modeling the pair after Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two minor characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Pam (Lynne Griffin), who takes over her recently deceased father’s brewery in the movie, is also modeled after Hamlet, who in the play returns to Denmark after the murder of his father. English lit fans will also note that Elsinore Brewery is named after Hamlet’s royal castle of the same name.  

 Sean Hutchinson. “11 Frosty Facts About Strange Brew”

I’ve heard this film defended as a slice of Canadiana (is that even a word), and that the Hamlet comparisons are a way of riffing on Canada’s “Postmodern identity.” In essence, the film is Hamlet because both Hamlet and Canada are meta, but I don’t see it that way. I see it as a way to hoodwink people into thinking this comedy is smarter than it is.

 Right now you’re thinking, “Geez, we got hosed! What about Hamlet, you knob?”

Dave Thomas, ending of this POS