Serial Shakespeare: Intermedial Performance and the Outrageous Fortunes of Slings & Arrows

Laurie E. Osborne, Colby College


Whereas televising Shakespeare in Britain and the U.S. has most frequently taken the form of full performances or adaptations of individual plays, Canada's Slings & Arrows embraces the serial nature of television as a medium and deploys both sequencing and seasons to create a more extensive and sustained engagement with the problems of intermedial performance. The series embraces the distinctive qualities of theatrical production and theater's vicissitudes while itself conforming to the dual demands of episode form and series story arcs currently favored by hour-length cable television dramas. In the process, Slings & Arrows actively and continually tests the conditions of its own transference of Shakespeare from theater to television by juxtaposing theatrical ideals with televisual practices. The first season of Slings & Arrows engages Shakespeare on several levels: as "timeless" texts and as commercialized objects, as the province of the actors living the lines, and as a cultural space where several media — theatrical, televisual, and cinematic — can and do collide. While Season II initially attempts to characterize television as the medium of stilted vanity interviews and advertising hucksters, the season's growing emphasis on theatrical spontaneity and danger produces recurrent and self-conscious negotiations between the conflict-ridden immediacy that makes theater a potent experience for its audiences and the reiterable, manipulative fashioning of pace and image that empowers televisual performance. Season III takes on the doubled issues of a lead actor's imminent death from cancer and the theater's impending demise, with film, television, and musical theater as its overeager heirs. Demonstrating how remediation of Shakespeare, at its best, acknowledges and foregrounds relationships between performance media, Slings & Arrows explores the layered depths and performance fragments of filmed Shakespeare, pushes the boundaries of televisual representation and theatrical liveness, and responds to the challenges that various filmed media pose to the energy and survival of Shakespearean theater.

Throughout its three seasons, Slings & Arrows explores the Shakespeare-centric world of the New Burbage Shakespeare festival. Although the series in some ways resembles Kenneth Branagh's A Midwinter's Tale, its "TV à clef" setting offers an insider's gentle mockery of the Stratford Shakespeare festival and indeed the whole Canadian theater world, which also supplies many of the excellent performers who play the New Burbage actors. While retaining and reworking Shakespearean language both onstage and off, Slings & Arrows interrogates Shakespeare's ongoing relevance and status in Canadian culture (see Fischlin 2004, Osborne 2008). However, as interesting as the allusions that link the series with the Stratford festival and its history may be, tracking them distracts from the broader and, I argue, more intriguing insights that the series offers about adapting Shakespeare's works across performance media. In fact, the local specifics that tie New Burbage to Canadian theatrical culture most interest me as dimensions, or even symptoms, of the evolving intermedial project that the producers undertake: reshaping Shakespeare and theater for television.
Richly peopled with an actor/director once driven mad during a performance, an over-the-hill artistic director who quickly becomes the series ghost, several temperamental actors and actresses, a much-vexed stage manager, and an executive producer with his beleaguered administrative assistant, Slings & Arrows brings the Shakespearean theater fully into the most distinctively televisual of genres, the miniseries. Even more important, transposing the backstage backbiting at a Shakespearean theater festival into the familiar format of the TV workplace drama gives writers Susan Coyne, Bob Martin, and Mark McKinney a platform for reflecting upon the several challenges of staging, adapting, and televising Shakespeare's plays. While critiquing the relationship between television and theater, the series develops increasingly nuanced representations of how theater and recorded performances now collude to create twenty-first century Shakespeare.
Whereas televising Shakespeare in Britain and the U.S. has most frequently taken the form of full performances or adaptations of individual plays, Slings & Arrows embraces the serial nature of television as a medium and deploys both sequencing and seasons to create a more extensive and sustained engagement with the problems of intermedial performance. Each of the three seasons centers around a Shakespearean play: "the first season, youth (Hamlet), the second, midlife (Macbeth), and the third, old age (Lear)" (Hays 2005, 11). Within this framework, the series reflects the distinctive qualities of theatrical production and theater's vicissitudes while itself conforming to the dual demands of episode and series story arcs of the currently favored hour-length cable TV drama series. In the process, Slings & Arrows actively and continually tests the conditions of its own transference of Shakespeare from theater to television by juxtaposing theatrical ideals with televisual practices. Demonstrating how remediation of Shakespeare, at its best, acknowledges and foregrounds relationships between performance media, the series explores the layered depths and performance fragments of filmed Shakespeare, pushes the boundaries of televisual representation and theatrical liveness, and responds to the challenges that various filmed media pose to the energy and survival of Shakespearean theater. Slings & Arrows as a whole reveals how the ongoing representations created in series television can explore the depth and quality of intermedial influences filmed and theatrical performance in the twenty-first century.
Each season employs a different strategy to address the central paradox of representing the distinctiveness of Shakespearean theater on TV. The first season represents not only the disillusioned residue of youthful passions and conflicts among the three principal characters — Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross), Ellen Fanshaw (Martha Burns), and Oliver Wells (Stephen Ouimette) — but also establishes the series' central concerns about the encounter between an aging theatrical industry and an energetic, youth-oriented commercial television and film, at first identified with American characters. The commercial and artistic triumphs of the initial season of Slings & Arrows itself, like Geoffrey's successful production of Hamlet, pave the way for the ambitions exemplified in the second season's exploration of Macbeth. As Niv Fichman characterizes it, "Season II tackles the conflicts of middle age and rebranding — in other words the process of giving new meaning to an old image, both personal and corporate" (Fichman 2005, 8). The "new meaning of the old image[s]" of Shakespeare emerges on stage in Season II, but only once television is controlled through representations of video limitations and displaced into the realms of dishonest advertising. In the final season, the series, now itself hugely successful, wrestles most fully with its own contradictory impulses to celebrate theater while making effective TV. Season III offers a dark meditation on the possibility that the Shakespearean theater, like Lear, is difficult, mad, and moribund. Although the final season opens with a multi-television backdrop to the recently successful New Burbage Festival and includes an American television actress and Ellen's brief television contract, its conclusion implicitly returns theater to an idealized state, at least temporarily beyond the reach of commercialized television, which is represented as artistically and personally barren even though it has provided the form and venue to celebrate theater anew.
The vexed relationship between Shakespearean theater and television explored throughout the series predates its production and is inflected by specifically Canadian contexts. As Matthew Hays reports, "In a country with as rich a theatre history as Canada's, you would think an ongoing TV series about a struggling theatre festival would be a no-brainer. Indeed, it says something about the state of Canadian TV drama that the topic took this long to reach the airwaves" (Hays 2005, 10). Even though the project had obvious strong local appeal because of its gentle send-up of Canada's investment (in all senses of the word) in both Shakespeare and local theater, the screenplay writers initially had difficulty getting funding from CBC and finally linked up with Rhombus Media, a Toronto-based production company, and Showcase, a Canadian pay-TV channel that envisions itself as "Canada's HBO." However, the script was so closely tied to the Canadian theatrical scene that co-writer Susan Coyne feared that her general audience would miss too much of what was going on.1 Oddly enough, Coyne's appreciation of U.S. television series eases her worries about representing distinctively Canadian theatrical culture:
But then I thought about all the workplace dramas that I love, Hill Street Blues, ER, and isn't it precisely the details of those workplaces that we enjoy? When The West Wing came on, I was like, "I have no idea what they are talking about, but I'm fascinated." . . . If the characters are real and credible, then their world can be fascinating even if you don't entirely understand it." (quoted in Hays 2005, 11)
Between these challenges in developing the project and the struggles of artistic collaboration among three screenwriters, the resulting series reflects upon the pressures of producing televised Shakespeare, particularly within the Canadian context of traditional Shakespearean theater.
Slings & Arrows underscores the myriad ways in which the relationship between Shakespearean theater and television has changed since the early days when the small screen fit better with theatrical production. Instead of the initial televised Shakespeare, which presented live theater productions from the sound stage, Slings & Arrows represents the vitality and energy of supposedly live production by means of technical effects, recording manipulations, soundtrack effects, and emergent genres of television — the new televisuality analyzed within American television so ably by John Caldwell (Caldwell 1995, 5-11, passim). The increasingly cinematic dimensions of television, as well as its development of distinctive genres like the workplace drama and the miniseries, have replaced the quality of liveness and emphasis on dialogue that Michael Anderegg identifies as key sources of the alliance between early television and Shakespeare (Anderegg 2004, 148). Season by season, the series reflects upon the contradictory nature of its own project, identifying, illuminating, and attempting to resolve the challenges of intermedial Shakespeare.

Season I: Locating and Relocating Shakespeare in Performance

Geoffrey: Now Cheryl seems to believe that a theatre needs phones. I disagree. The theatre is an empty space. As per the four-hundred-year-old stage direction we begin with a tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning . . . The ship is torn apart by Prospero's magic, the mechanism of his revenge is set in motion; the lights churn and swell like the sea [sound of bulbs bursting, flash of light]. Ah, nuts.
The first season of Slings & Arrows depicts a struggle between "pure" theatrical artistry and hyper-produced Canadian theatrical fare in the context of the influence that television and film have on live performance. Geoffrey Tennant is introduced as the possibly crazy director of a private local theater, Theatre Sans Argent (Theater without Money). Beleaguered by the practical problems of faulty toilets, missing rent, and exploding lights that halt his powerful opening invocation of a staged Tempest, Tennant devotes himself to the theater as art. He represents the antithesis of his former friend Oliver Wells, the artistic director of the New Burbage Shakespeare Festival. Wells, whose name recalls famous actor-director Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles, opens the series (and his season) by directing a stultifying, highly financed, over-produced Dream (Ford 2007).
From the moment that the theater patrons neglect the opening night of A Midsummer Night's Dream to stay home and watch the playoffs, the encroachments of television are obvious. At the festival itself, the show in progress appears on television screens backstage. Oliver even watches his own production on a television from the backstage office and asks that the stage hand flip the channel to the game.2
Moreover, when the channel-switching brings to his attention the TV news story about Geoffrey, who has chained himself to the door of the theater from which he is being evicted, Oliver exclaims, "Now, that's drama!" In fact, the television verité of handheld camera work and murky lighting marks Geoffrey's televised news appearance as real in ways that elude Oliver's stagey production.
This sly incursion of televisual "live footage" establishes an awareness of how television both challenges and collaborates with the theater, particularly in Slings & Arrows itself. On the one hand, the supposed reality of the TV news story contrasts with the tired, familiar falseness of Oliver's Dream; on the other hand, the news clip offers Geoffrey much needed publicity and provokes an outpouring of public funding and support for his "art." This opening sequence encapsulates a double bind in the relationship between television and Shakespearean theater. Television's widespread public appeal, ready availability, and representations of reality (sports, news, etc.) draw audiences away from the stage at the same time that TV's ability to create audiences can prove essential to theater's survival. In fact, the various audiences of Geoffrey's television appearance use him to rescue the festival after Oliver dies at the end of the first episode, struck down by a truck bearing the logo "Canada's Best Hams."
In Season I, Geoffrey's artistic association with the pared down, anti-commercial Shakespeare of the Theatre Sans Argent quickly outweighs his television celebrity. When he agrees to be the interim artistic director, he soon finds himself arguing with Oliver's ghost. Although this scenario foregrounds the conflict between Geoffrey and Oliver — between edgy, risky Shakespeare on stage and an institutionalized bard — the series complicates Geoffrey's risk-taking by putting him in Oliver's milieu, the New Burbage Shakespeare Festival. The monetary preoccupations of both venues soon establish the relationship between commerce and Shakespearean performance, whatever the performance venue or medium. As Paul Gross notes, the unholy alliance between commerce and art is a constant factor in theater and an even more significant influence in the more expensive medium of television.
The exigencies of funding directly motivate the New Burbage general manager. In Season I, Richard Smith-Jones regards the theater as a business and is temporarily seduced, both morally and physically, by Holly Day (Jennifer Irwin), an American corporate raider. Holly seeks to make the Festival profitable by name-branding a "Shakespeare Ville" and introducing big-budget musicals; to promote her cause, she not only coaches Smith-Jones on corporate politicking, but also drags him off to see Mamma Mia in Toronto in order to show him that theater can be fun.
These features quite recognizably both allude to Richard Monette's controversial commercialization of the Stratford festival, by incorporating tourist attractions and mounting musicals, and recall the rivalry between province-based theatrical festivals and the Toronto theater scene (Parolin 2009, 201-204; Knowles 1995, 36). However, the form they take also displaces those Canadian theatrical contentions first onto the financially motivated general manager and then, even more emphatically, onto the obnoxious American entrepreneur.
Between the American star brought in to play Hamlet and Holly Day, Season I of Slings & Arrows seemingly attributes the challenges facing theatrical Shakespeare to the threats of American film acting and commercialism, yet the season ultimately acknowledges far more complex and wide-ranging problems facing the Canadian theater, ultimately anchored in media changes. Their new American film star's apparent ability to wreck Hamlet and the casual destruction of the festival proposed by Holly Day endanger the production less immediately than do the horrific acting of the native-born, nepotistically ensconced Ophelia and the depredations of their first replacement director, Darren Nichols (Don McKellar). In his opening read-through, Nichols announces that "this play is dead; it has been dead for 300 years. It has been strip-mined for quotations and propped up like Lenin's body in his ice cave." He illustrates this vision by drawing his production concept from the rottenness in Denmark: he wants to create a production that literally stinks and leads the way into this vision when the actors first meet by cueing them, "Let's read this corpse." While Nichols represents the extremes of directing from a concept rather than the Shakespearean text, he also responds to Geoffrey's critique of his approach by articulating most directly the issues of competing media: "I don't hate the theater. I pity it — sad, little medium struggling to be heard. More people listen to the radio than go to the theater. And no one listens to the radio." He does not even compare theater and television, reaching to radio in order to articulate theater's supposedly minimal audience and outdated form. For Geoffrey, Shakespearean theater is, like its actors, both vital and dangerous, but he values the stage in the face of several forces that seemingly undermine it — including the fact that his view is represented on television.
Moreover, the apparent anti-theatricality in American Jack Crewe's disconcerting method acting and Holly Day's cheerful Texan sabotage resonate ironically with the series writers' acknowledged artistic inspiration: "What needed to be developed was the form and structure Slings & Arrows would take on. Not surprisingly, the boom in intelligent, thoughtful hour-long series for cable proved a major point of inspiration for the scribe trio . . . [Bob] Martin confirms that HBO hour-long dramas were a guiding light." In fact, all the writers claim American cable series, specifically The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, as the origin for their choice of genre. Mark McKinney, who also plays the weasley, bureaucratic Richard Smith-Jones, was drawn to this structure because "it's like drama has become three-dimensional again" (Hays 2005, 10).
Arguably, theater has always been three-dimensional in ways that TV and film practitioners occasionally forget. In fact, the first season gently mocks the actor-audience disconnect of TV and film performances. When Jack Crewe (Luke Kirby) tells Kate (Rachel McAdams) that he enjoys going to his own films in order to see how the audience reacts since "you can't do that in theater," she instantly challenges the absurdity of his cine-centric view. This exchange also makes fun implicitly of television acting that separates actors from their audiences. However, Kate's audition for a TV commercial also emphasizes this disconnect when she kicks the soccer ball right into the camera and at producers watching her. Although the ball does not break the series' frame, this moment simultaneously shows that the action on television typically does not connect with its audience and implies that, even so, Slings & Arrows itself can represent and perhaps create such impact. While positioning the television audition as a powerful competing alternative to theater acting for Kate, this sequence underscores how Slings & Arrows uses the multiple, mutually referential representations of media. However, the depth created by meta-television is not literal but figurative: Shakespeare is the ground against which the workplace shenanigans in New Burbage play out.
From the first season on, the paradox of deploying televisual conventions to create a celebration of theatrical acting and the stage becomes a key feature of the series. For example, in Season I, Geoffrey Tennant embarks on a disastrous double TV interview with New Burbage's pet critic, Basil Thume (Sean Cullen), and the invisible ghost of Oliver Welles. Their colliding questions lead Geoffrey to alienate the entire company by blasting the New Burbage theatrical productions because "they come across as television specials." Not only is Tennant himself a character in just such a television special, but also only part of this interview experience appears in the "filming" of the television interview since Oliver's questions are, naturally, inaudible for Thume and his camera.
Slings & Arrows's tongue-in-cheek representation of theater necessarily co-exists with an acute awareness of the series' own production conditions, which increasingly conflict with and paradoxically energize the theatrical experiences that the series celebrates. The audience of Slings & Arrows is drawn into layered realities; performances within performances on a television show create comparative levels of liveness.
Another crucial element of televising Shakespeare that emerges in Season I is partial performances. Although rehearsal practices (running sections of text, reiterating scenes, shifting around in a play) authorize the use of bits and pieces of theatrical production in the series, Slings & Arrows, like Looking for Richard, has no complete Shakespearean performance waiting in the wings, even though Paul Gross recounts the various requests he received to film William Hutt's King Lear or Hamlet from Season I.
As Martha Burns notes, the actors get to "be familiar with Shakespeare and then have to do it in the sort of quick and dirty way of television filming." According to Burns, this different approach has its advantages:
To do chunks of Shakespeare for film . . . means that you get to tone it down a little bit. You get to speak in a normal voice. You get to the intimacy . . . that's harder to achieve on a big stage, to have the camera capture the intimacy, the psychology of what he writes and that you know is being captured in film, where you can't ever be sure if it's really reaching the last row of the theatre.
This sanction of smaller sections of text on film as more psychologically accessible also emphasizes the strengths of television, particularly its characteristic beats and small moments.
The effect described by Burns derives in part from the prominence of the close-up, a characteristic feature of television that encourages minimalist acting and the audience's interpretive responses (Sorlin 1998, 199-26). The intimacy of televised performance means that Shakespearean language is easy to understand, especially since the miniseries' alternative plots reinforce the themes and situations motivating that language. As a result, the hour-long drama series with a multi-episode story arc, a TV format that seems most antithetical to Shakespearean theater, can develop a complex and nuanced engagement with Shakespearean language that explores the ways in which Shakespeare's cultural presence crosses media, in particular by moving beyond stage performance.
At the same time, the persistent underlying conflicts between contemporary television and Shakespearean theater engender in the series a number of strategies that enhance the influence of Shakespeare. For example, the various Shakespeares in Slings & Arrows, from kitsch to high art, become so compelling because Shakespeare matters so much and so specifically to these characters. As Martha Burns describes it, "It's a television show about people affected by Shakespeare, really. In the way that anyone passionate about their job is usually good fodder for a story" (Burns 2006). As the first season makes clear, these theater professionals have performed and directed Shakespeare's plays repeatedly. Oliver dies while directing his tenth Dream, in which Ellen plays Titania for the sixth time. Geoffrey has played most major Shakespearean heroes, including Hamlet. The series fully exploits their resulting expertise. In fact, co-writer Bob Martin insisted that the series should not underestimate its audience: "Oliver and Geoffrey parry and thrust with an encyclopedic knowledge of Shakespeare and theater and say viciously intelligent things. Every reference about staging and interpretation of the text, even if it's a one line toss, took an enormous amount of time to research" (Playbill I 2004, 10). Thorough engagement with the plays is so endemic to these actor-characters that they often incorporate Shakespearean language into other situations.
Specifically, their deep knowledge makes possible omnipresent references to Shakespeare's plays, as the characters use and re-use Shakespeare so that his language proliferates across plots and, most important, beyond the stage. In Season I Oliver takes the role of the Ghost during one of Geoffrey's onstage flashbacks to his disastrous performance as Hamlet. First seen as a shadow, Oliver uses Old Hamlet's lines to lament his own "death," caused, he avers, by the New Burbage theater: "It killed me. Avenge my foul and most unnatural murder." In a later episode, Geoffrey, who has been housing Oliver's skull in his office, greets Ellen by paraphrasing Claudius's confession, "Oh, my office is rank; it stinks to heaven." In the closing scene of the first season, Geoffrey and Ellen together ritually pour Oliver's ashes into a stream while Geoffrey quotes a fairly obscure passage from King John as Oliver's epitaph:
I am the cygnet to this pale faint swan,
Who chants a doleful hymn to his own death,
And from the organ-pipe of frailty sings
His soul and body to their lasting rest. (5.7.21-24)
Although audience members may not recognize this speech (as Richard Smith-Jones fails to realize Pericles was Shakespeare's work when Geoffrey proposes it for his second season), this epitaph neatly resituates Oliver's death, not Old Hamlet now but King John, and signals that Geoffrey, speaking as Prince Henry, has accepted his place as heir. More important, Shakespearean language also reaches beyond the actors and into the "real" community. Even the New Burbage funeral directors unwittingly "talk Shakespeare." When one of them intones over Oliver's dead body, "All the world's a stage . . . and we all play our parts," his partner remarks admiringly, "I'll remember that, Reg. You do have a way with words." With all these folks living and breathing Shakespeare's texts, stage performance obviously does not confine his language — Shakespeare reaches beyond the stage and even outside the theater, pervading the televisually "real" world of New Burbage.
As a result, the first season of Slings & Arrows engages Shakespeare on several levels: as "timeless" texts and as commercialized objects; as the province of the actors living the lines; and as a cultural space where several media — theatrical, televisual, and cinematic — can and do collide. In fact, the promotion of the series embraces such collisions; the mock playbills, produced as press kits for each TV season, play upon these conjunctions, and Basil Thume escapes the fiction to write reviews for the Toronto Sun (Thume 2005, C9). Slings & Arrows establishes and celebrates theatrical liveness by exploiting an array of cinematic strategies and television techniques. In fact, what makes this season most interesting as remediation is the uneasy collaboration that develops between television and theater.

Season II: Theatrical Ambitions and Televisual Usurpations

Moira: I liked it well enough. But like I say, you can't go wrong with Hamlet. And now Macbeth, that's another story. I'm interested to see what you do with that . . . It's a puzzle for the best of them. Oliver was obsessed with it; he wrote reams of notes. He had a plan. But you're not Oliver . . . It's a trial by fire. I've seen men broken by that play. Oh, yes, I'm interested to see what you do with that one.
The first season so effectively created a sense of Shakespearean pervasiveness in the semi-fictional New Burbage and its theater festival that Season II's promotional playbill makes the tongue-in-cheek claim that "the New Burbage Festival has taken on a life of its own. We are not dependent on emulating any pre-existing theater festival. In fact New Burbage can take its rightful place alongside Stratford and Shaw" (Playbill II 2005, 8). Equating the televised New Burbage festival with actual Canadian theater festivals expresses just the kind of overweening ambition that the second season addresses when Geoffrey reluctantly stages Macbeth. The production is to be an homage to Oliver, who planned his staging of the play obsessively before and, as it turns out, after his death. The Scottish play proves a natural and even an inevitable choice for a television series that not only includes a ghost as a major character but also explores the idiosyncrasies of the theatrical profession.
At the same time, the second season foregrounds more directly than the first the possible usurpation that television threatens. In episode 2, "Fallow Time," Geoffrey procrastinates by watching a videotaped TV special about Oliver Welles entitled The King of New Burbage. The juxtaposition between this video and Geoffrey's work on staging Macbeth structures the TV episode while persistently distinguishing taped "television" from the "live" theatrical work of New Burbage. These meta-television moments in the second season of Slings & Arrows produce complex effects related to those that Margaret Jane Kidnie addresses in her analysis of the Shakespeare ReTold version of Much Ado about Nothing:
. . . these meta-televisual scenes reinforce as an important aspect of the aesthetics of broadcast television the effect of "liveness," the sense that this action is transmitted (as though) live directly into one's living room. At the same time, however, a constant engagement with the production of television images disturbs the illusion of camera transparency, serving instead as a constant reminder that this "liveness" effect is itself fabricated. (Kidnie 2009, 122)
Such moments recur in Slings & Arrows because its miniseries format allows the development and elaboration of the effects created by meta-televisual scenes, which appear first in the "live" footage and interviews in Season I and evolve during Season II. In all, the videotaped King of New Burbage appears four times. Each instance interleaves "television" with the "real world" of New Burbage, a strategy that initially contains the television program and distances it from Geoffrey's theatrical enterprise. However, the two soon intrude upon each other in ways that reflect the series' self-aware involvement in relocating Shakespeare within "the miniseries[,] . . . the quintessential televisual form" (Caldwell 1995, 5).
The Slings & Arrows audience first encounters The King of New Burbage just after the opening credits of episode 2, when the labeled videotape spine appears on screen where the white typeset names of writers and producers scroll down. By re-introducing Oliver in a TV interview, Season II not only allows Geoffrey at first to control and mock Oliver, but also identifies television as more narrowly focused, mannered, and manipulative than the comparatively real world of New Burbage. Geoffrey's procrastination via videotape establishes television as reproducible and contained, limited to the small screen in his office, the opposite of live. In addition, The King of New Burbage implicitly gives Oliver Duncan-like status while enabling Geoffrey to play a distanced, yet responsive TV audience. For most of this initial videotaped appearance, Oliver and the other interviewees appear tightly framed on a small TV screen until the sequence cuts to full screen shot during Graham Green's reiteration of the word "profoundly" as he reaches for the wholly inappropriate adjective "humble" to describe Oliver. Still in full frame, Oliver then talks about his "burden," provoking a cutaway to Geoffrey's explosive laughter. Oliver's image then becomes solarized into a stylized, even cartoonish title screenshot for the video.
This introduction of Oliver raises thematic issues surrounding kingship and lonely rule while apparently restricting self-serving, emotional close-ups and camera trickery safely to television.
However, Geoffrey's persistent fascination with this televised interview and repeated screenings of it also demonstrate that television and its doppelganger videos possess influence that is not so easily controlled or dismissed. When the video next appears, Geoffrey shares with New Burbage's all-purpose stagehand a segment where Oliver bemoans how he "hate[s] to look at [his] own work," precisely the kind of viewing and reviewing most characteristic of television and film. However, the aspect of this lament that most annoys Geoffrey is Oliver's ultimate characterization of himself as a "National treasure. He actually uses those words, calls himself a national treasure. Fifty times I've watched this." While this sequence invokes the re-iterability of video reproduction in Geoffrey's multiple viewings, the onscreen video concludes with several awkward "page-turning" screen wipes that emphasize another layer of remediation, from page to performance.
With such techniques, this episode juxtaposes the predictable repeatability and the artifice of The King of New Burbage with Geoffrey's fitful, tortured struggles with staging Macbeth. When the sequence closes with Oliver's comments about "the Scottish play," it is dark outside; watching television has completely displaced Geoffrey's theatrical work.
By the end of the episode, television intrudes into the real world of New Burbage. In close up, Oliver apparently addresses Geoffrey from within the television show. Although it is Anna (Susan Coyne) calling Geoffrey's name rather than Oliver, the constraint on Oliver as a mere TV image has begun to crack. This breach becomes still more vivid in the next "video" sequence where Oliver's self-congratulatory exchanges with Brian at first recall the televised interviewing that Geoffrey endured in the first season, this time within the seemingly safe frame of the television screen. However, this interview, punctuated with new page-turn stills of a much younger Geoffrey and Ellen, turns out to be part of Geoffrey's dream/nightmare, which closes with him driving the Canadian Ham truck that killed Oliver in Season I. This moment transforms the television interview into oneiric king-killing.
Although Geoffrey is consequently freed to begin working on Macbeth, another plot in Season II represents television in even more menacing form: at the Froghammer ad agency, their TV screen taunts Richard Smith-Jones with sexual language as he waits to hire the firm that will "re-brand" New Burbage. In their innovative campaign that displays the festival's audience as moribund and publicizes its negative reviews, one particularly telling advertisement quotes a review that notes, "theatre has never made television look so appealing."
This "bad" review of New Burbage provocatively recasts the positive reviews that Slings & Arrows itself received. Such accolades appear prominently on the DVD packaging, which quotes a Time Magazine comment that the series "STRUTS and FRETS its moments on the stage DELIGHTFULLY." As Diane Werts puts it in her glowing Newsday review of the third season: "There's nothing quite like it on television — nothing with such fully rounded characters, running through such a wide range of emotion, using such fluent language to express such radiant affection for the theater and what it exemplifies: life itself. Well, we should expect nothing less. The show is set amid a troupe doing Shakespeare" (Werts 2007). In other words, television allows theater to epitomize "life itself." In Slings & Arrows, paradoxically, Shakespearean theater does become what makes television so appealing.
Although Season II of Slings & Arrows centers around the apparently cursed production of the Scottish play, the problems in the concurrent production of Romeo and Juliet provide crucial help for Geoffrey to overcome his issues with Macbeth. Replacing a director injured because of the curse, Darren Nichols initially designs a production of Romeo and Juliet that reflects (and inadvertently indicts) arid critical approaches to the play. Nichols insists that the play is about "signifiers."
Costumed only in black, white, and grays, the actors may not address their lines to each other and even appear on stage in caged hoops and chess piece headgear that make movement or physical contact all but impossible.
When this "shitty, shitty production" drives the lead actors to beseech Geoffrey for direction, he makes them run their lines as Romeo and Juliet after literally running around the theater. As he tricks them into the breathless, heart-pounding delivery that opens up their understanding of the lovers' headlong passion, this simulation of breathless excitement reminds Geoffrey that effective theater takes risks and involves fear. Moreover, his strategy with these actors suggests that sometimes artificially producing the symptoms can also create the effects.
This epiphany gives him the impetus to resist Oliver's spectacle-driven approach to Macbeth and, more important, to overrule his difficult star. Played as "an actor marinating in his former triumphs," Henry Breedlove constantly reminds everyone that he has performed the part three times successfully and refuses to entertain new direction for this production (Playbill II 2005, 6). Geoffrey's vision of Macbeth's fearful humanity conflicts with Henry's smug assumption that his Macbeth is dignified and sonorous — not humiliated by his wife, panicked by the ghost, or haunted by his own mortality. Essentially Henry embraces the over-staged Macbeth that Oliver once fantasized about and now tries — invisibly — to direct.
Despite this dual opposition, Geoffrey achieves his production twice, first by firing Henry and allowing his under-prepared and fearful understudy to go on and later by tricking Henry, along with Ellen as Lady Macbeth, into experiencing fear on stage. Both performances insist that the power of Shakespeare's play derives from risk-taking. This insight echoes to some extent the previous season's successfully uncertain Hamlet, even if Season II resorts to strategic manipulation to achieve a sense of danger. Nonetheless, the central point seems to be that theater involves the perils of live performance. Henry can be duped into experiencing the panic of uncertainty again because Geoffrey changes his entrances and directs the actors to do unexpected things to unhinge Henry's predictable Macbeth: Lady Macbeth strips him on stage, and young Seward becomes unusually difficult to kill. The hazards of this experience extend to the onscreen theater audience when the actor playing Macduff lures Henry finally to duel on the thrust stage he has scrupulously avoided throughout all rehearsals and previews. Geoffrey exploits the risk inherent in live theater that Ellen identifies very early in the season: "God, Geoffrey, have you forgotten what it's like? Theater is war; actors are the ones on the front lines!" More to the point, Slings & Arrows aligns that actorly experience with Shakespeare's Macbeth, whose actions are both scripted and fraught with his uncertainties.
Paralleling Shakespeare's play, Geoffrey deposes Oliver as director and appears mad when talking to him in a supposedly empty chair, an effect he transposes into his banquet scene over Oliver's objections. Moreover, Geoffrey's plans to disrupt Henry's performance with "a few small set changes" ensure that Henry also resembles Macbeth — he possesses a foreknowledge of the plot, but he can no longer be certain how his destiny on stage will play out. While on stage, Breedlove experiences the character's crucial vulnerability and uncertainty about the prophecies. At the same time, ironically, the power and danger of the resulting theatrical performance are signaled through televisual effects, like backstage scenes crosscut with stage action, point-of-view shots, and the now characteristic soundtrack indicators of effective performance. Underscored by the ticking and harp arpeggios that aurally marked the success of Geoffrey's Hamlet in Season I, the filming of Macbeth foregrounds Henry's enraged and exhilarated experience of the play, including the moment when he loses his line after "they have tied me to a stake" and must be cued by the understudy that he scorned. However, the effects of liveness and its vulnerability result from Geoffrey's trickery and are validated by televisual coding of sound and image.
Ultimately, the affirmation of theatrical risk and the resulting effective performance run counter to the very structure of television: its reiterated takes, its assurance that flawed performances can be edited out, and its potential for out-of-order or partial scene filming. While Season II initially attempts to characterize television as the medium of stilted vanity interviews and advertising hucksters, the season's growing emphasis on theatrical spontaneity and danger implicitly challenges its own mechanisms of production. In the same way that the Froghammer advertising mastermind unexpectedly delivers the "youth audience" even though he proves to be a con artist and a thief, television, though portrayed as the medium of the self-involved and the criminally manipulative, proves essential to portraying the "live" experience of theater in Slings & Arrows. The series enacts recurrent and self-conscious negotiations between the conflictual immediacy that makes theater a potent experience for its audiences and the reiterable, manipulative fashioning of pace and image that empower televisual performance. As the seasons progress, the more successfully Slings & Arrows celebrates the theatrical experience, the more important become the televisual style and form that enable that praise.

Season III: Overeager Performance Heirs and their Mad Parent, the Theater

Whereas the first two seasons affirm the effectiveness and transcendence of live theater by televising and contextualizing successful performance moments from Hamlet and Macbeth, Season III fully displays the threat that television — and by extension commercialism — poses to theater. Geoffrey Tennant and the New Burbage Theater are done in by their own triumphs. Although their exciting Macbeth has made it to Broadway and empowers both Geoffrey and the New Burbage Festival, the resulting fame and financial support do not enable art. Instead, this season opens with a barrage of screens taking over the New Burbage stage, complete with echo effects and aural allusions. The opening voiceover, quoted above, occurs on a bare stage with multiple framed screens flashing words and images from the previous seasons.
In essence, Season III shows Geoffrey encountering the same institutional demands that presumably eroded Oliver's artistic integrity, now anchored and represented in televisual reproduction. Success has earned Geoffrey elaborate storm machinery and stage technicians who try to mimic his approach by asking whether the storm is in Lear himself. Geoffrey's response is to fall apart.
At first, the final season's plot lines seem to be as incoherent and disordered as Geoffrey's artistic and emotional life: a group of hapless, displaced Bolivian musicians; an excruciating "new" musical East Hampton, roughly echoing Rent (which roughly echoes La Boheme); a struggle between the company actors and their counterparts in the musical; and a King Lear that stars a cantankerous, aging actor who turns out to be dying of cancer. While Macbeth's witchy encounters with ambition, fear, and disaster saturate and thus unify all the plots of Season II, Season III at first appears disjointed. The strongest connections derive from the persistent failures of performance that link the various plot lines. Geoffrey weeps uncontrollably whenever he faces an audience; Charles Kingman ravages his fellow actors, especially Cordelia, in rehearsal; the Lear has to be cancelled twice; and Kingman loses his way onstage throughout. For the first five episodes, the one success of the festival occurs off-screen: the musical East Hampton, with its junkie-whore Lilli, whose central song about finding her voice is an explicit antithesis of Cordelia's/Sophie's plight in Lear. Kingman's shortcomings, the failure of performance, and the potential death of theater soon become markers of closure for the series as a whole. At the same time, Kingman's partial successes, both the effective moments in his acting of Lear and the situations in which he lives Lear, resonate in the snippets of the play that the company actually performs.
Season III of Slings & Arrows takes on the doubled issues of Charles Kingman's imminent death from cancer and the theater's impending demise, with film, television, and musical theater as its overeager heirs. King Lear's division of his kingdom, his experiences of betrayal, his crotchety, maddened progress toward reunion with the younger generation, and his death become the context for a larger meditation on the theater in general and its diminishment in competition with younger, sexier media like cinema and television. At the same time, Charles's dying request that Geoffrey let him take Lear as far as possible enables the series to echo and reframe the disrupted television interview with Basil in Season I and disrupted screening of The King of Burbage in Season II. Now the actual stage performance is radically endangered.
One important sign that the series is moving toward resolution rather than dissolution lies in the emergence of new coherence in Geoffrey's own experiences. While Geoffrey and Oliver's simultaneous questions to Geoffrey's therapist signal one kind of new allegiance, a conversation among Geoffrey, Oliver, and Charles gives Geoffrey the first instance where his interchanges with Oliver coincide with his "real" interactions:
Charles: I know the part. I've been studying it all my life, and now I'm living it.
Help me do this, for however far we get. Promise me.
Oliver: Is this it? Is this my higher purpose?
Geoffrey: I don't know.
Oliver: You have to do this, Geoffrey, for me.
Geoffrey: For you?
Charles: Yes. For me.
Oliver's desire to understand why he is still around, his quest for his "higher purpose," leads to his alliance with Charles, and, on occasion, Charles actually sees and even talks to Oliver when Geoffrey does.
The parallels among Kingman, Lear, and the theater develop subtly until Kingman himself makes the connection explicit in episode 3: "And like the theatre, I'm boldly fighting a slow, undignified death." The New Burbage kingdom is divided and contested between the young company's musical and the venerable "ruling" Shakespeare of King Lear. The musical's success and Kingman's repeated failures soon force the Lear production into the small theater, with fewer resources and much diminished status. Thus, the third season enacts the stripping away of authority, financially supported spectacle, and audience for both Lear himself and for Shakespeare on stage.
Predictably, the actresses who play Regan and Goneril, Barbara and Ellen, most completely betray the production. Because they are also the figures who most consistently bring television into direct conflict with theater, their betrayal and subsequent support of the Kingman Lear embody the complex relations between television, with its stereotyped commercialism and supposed artistic limitations, and Shakespearean theater, with its lengthy performance tradition and claims to the power of live interaction. Barbara, currently an American TV actress, constantly recalls her television acting roles, though often in self-deprecatory terms. Reflecting the greater treachery shown by Regan, she not only misses rehearsal, but also betrays Ellen's confidence by telling Richard Smith-Jones about Charles's illness. Barbara's ability to damage not only the production, but also the relationship between Ellen and Geoffrey is strongly linked to her status as a television diva, apparently poisonous to the couple, the theater, and possibly to Shakespeare.
After Kingman abuses Ellen physically during rehearsal and she quits her role as Goneril to sign a deal to do a television series, her television work plays up the distinctions between theater acting and television acting that William Hutt makes in the Season III Playbill: "The difference between performing on stage and for the camera is just dialing down what you do on stage. The camera is an audience of one. I don't have to fill the whole room" (Playbill III 2006, 12). In the television studio, as the warrior-queen, Ellen declaims her accusations over the several dead bodies of her people. This interesting moment operates on several levels. First, in addition to the sonorous Shakespearean rhythms of Ellen's performance, the way that the speech is filmed emphasizes the differences between television acting and stage acting. Even before Ellen laments to Geoffrey about how "There's never time to talk about anything, not a scene, not a line of dialogue. If you ask a question, they say ooh, ohh, just shoot the alien," she performs for the camera as if she were aiming her speech at the back of an auditorium. Second, her TV scene appears largely as a long shot, from Geoffrey's perspective behind the cameras.
The closest the camera gets to her is the medium shot of her most important lines: "But what of the slaughtered children? Were they invaders? Were they killers bent on domination? If they were not, the ambassador is not an honorable man. He is a murderer." These lines resonate with Cordelia's execution as a supposed traitor to the realm and recall Edmund, ostensibly the loyal subject to England, who killed Lear's child. In a third level of this brief meta-performance, Ellen summarizes Lear's political plot, which the season itself downplays almost to invisibility — Edmund is not even a named actor-character and only the subplot of the Bolivian musicians raises the issue of a political coup. Her speech offers a televised — and thus diminished — substitution for Lear's anguished response after Cordelia is killed.
Just as important, Ellen's five-year TV contract initially confirms the demise of Kingman's Lear. For the first time in the series, it truly appears that the play, its lead actor, and even the theater are dead — there will be no resurrection of theatrical magic at the New Burbage theater, or on Slings & Arrows, beyond the flashes of Lear that have inhabited the off-stage drama much more fully than any of the onstage performance sequences. The parallel plots confirm this demise. Barbara has left Ellen's house and life; Geoffrey has resigned as artistic director. Richard Smith-Jones has rejected a series of impassioned, idealistic potential artistic directors in favor of Geoffrey's series-long nemesis and known squelcher of dramatic art, Darren Nichols. Even Oliver seems to be deserting the theatrical ship.
However, Geoffrey's beleaguered loyalties to Kingman, Oliver, and Shakespeare persist, and the array of performances outside the highly financed stage productions and dubious TV performances emerge as more important: after the interrupted Theatre Sans Argent Tempest in Season I, the children's production of Macbeth in Season II gives way in Season III to the rehearsal of A Midsummer Night's Dream in the nursing home, which in turn leads to the ultimate success of the single off-Festival performance of King Lear. Bound by his debt to Kingman as the inspiration for his own theatrical career and commitment to theatrical art, Geoffrey plays the loyal Kent long before he is thrust into acting the part on the makeshift stage of the series' final episode. Moreover, Geoffrey's ongoing therapy with a genial clergyman indirectly enables him to grant Charles Kingman's last request to play Lear because his therapist is willing to provide the space. After Geoffrey persuades Ellen to come back for one performance and lures the stage manager into reassembling the actors and stealing the props, he solicits the cast to flout the New Burbage management in order to play their King Lear just once, even if it takes place in a church's daycare room with a minimal audience. Even the comparably displaced Bolivian musicians serve the play by creating the storm with their instruments. This new alliance of the Lear actors defies the festival's interdiction in order to allow a dying actor his final professional, theatrical desire. After all of the strife and discord in the rehearsal process, that purpose reunites the company: the young lovers, Sophie/Cordelia and Paul/Edgar, find each other; Ellen and Barbara renew their friendship; and Geoffrey's acting career and sexual prowess are simultaneously resurrected.
Like the previous two seasons, Season III of Slings & Arrows makes great television out of celebrating theater; it stages powerful but partial Shakespearean performances in counterpoint with ironic exploration of the collisions between theatrical and televisual production. After all, however intensely the series focuses on the workings of actors and the theater, Slings & Arrows remains located on the television screen and remediates Shakespeare within the narrative and representational parameters of an ongoing television series. Both the successful and unsuccessful productions are radically cut and spliced together, much like the Romeo and Juliet that Shakespeare in Love stages and celebrates. Moreover, the series soundtrack marks "effective" theatrical performances with ticking and harp arpeggios, leitmotifs that recur throughout all three seasons and aurally condition their television audience for the affirmed "truth" and power of live theater. Signaling tension, the ticking also connotes the relentless rhythm of theatrical pacing, the headlong, unstoppable rush of live performance. The single harp melody implies a theatrical scene coming together harmonically, with the rising strength of the crescendo.
Yet television production differs significantly from the pace of rehearsal or stage performance, as the final season self-consciously reminds us in Ellen's performance on the sci-fi television series. The DVD extra materials reinforce this point; backstage footage from the series' filming amply illustrates the silence on the set, which differs so greatly from the final product, the intrusion of the technical aspects of television work, and the reiterated filming of bits and pieces.
The audience's dynamic experience of this kind of television show derives from editing the recorded performances, not from the energy of headlong action on stage, a fact that Season III exploits and exposes.
The final episode of the series, "The Promised End," moves beyond the televisual conventions that the series has been at such pains to develop. The company achieves the performance of Charles's Lear by stealing costumes and by coercing Geoffrey into playing Kent when another actor cannot, thus offering an almost impromptu performance on a bare stage. The television production achieves it by limiting its own features. Although the harp arpeggio refrain that signals effective performance accompanies Charles's recitation at the bowling alley, the staged production of Lear in the final episode is almost unnervingly stripped of soundtrack. Oliver's praise of Charles's performance — "I've always said, a tin sheet and a great actor, that's all you really need" — and Geoffrey's scornful objection — "Bullshit! You'd have had the Sierra system going full tilt, fog, thunder, lightning" — draw explicit attention to the sounds of the theatrical performance. While most of the excerpted moments from this last Lear include faint extradiegetic music as well as the Bolivians' rainsticks and percussion, the metonymic ticking that marks the other stage performances in Slings & Arrows surfaces audibly only when Geoffrey faces going onstage as Kent. In fact, Lear's final entrance and howling lament over Cordelia's body include no background sounds whatsoever.
This departure from the series-long use of television scoring distinguishes this theatrical experience from the earlier productions, paradoxically by presenting the silence so often demanded on the television sound stage. Stripped of many of the Festival's resources, most of its audience, and all its fancy machinery, Charles Kingman's Lear comes as close as the TV series can to the theater. Slings & Arrows prepares for this move over the long arc of three seasons by establishing and then removing the most subtly emotive of televisual features, the background soundtrack. While the characteristic television close-ups, cutting, and lighting strategies remain in evidence, the contrast provided by the silence after the storm, by the absence of musical scoring after the series-long melodic cueing to mark effective theater performance, drives home the series' final invocation of the theater's effectiveness.
Season III of Slings & Arrows uses King Lear to recount the death of a particular actor in Kingman and of Shakespearean commercial theater in New Burbage. Now devoted to musical theater, spectacle, and profit rather than theatrical truth, the festival is run by Smith-Jones. However, the play — like Lear himself, the aging actor, and the moribund theater — expresses its greatness most fully in the radically stripped down circumstances that refute the financial demands of big business. The notable absence of the spectacular effects of technological magic and of the sterile, if wealthy, trappings of television performance best represents the theater. However, just as "live theater" only comes into being when its antithesis of reproduced performance becomes possible (Auslander 1999, passim), the strategic absence of televisual effects only exists in contrast to the accreted presence of reproduced performances — to put it another way, only the series-long development of the televised soundtrack cues enables the power of their absence.

Coda: The Promised Ending

As the ends of Cordelia and Lear mark the departure of Oliver's ghost, this key interchange between Geoffrey and Oliver as they watch Lear from the wings reveals that their three-season contention has not actually been about them. In its conclusion, its "promised end," Slings & Arrows, too, strips down its own purpose to the bare essentials. The series is about putting on a play, a Shakespearean play. Within its skillful exploitation of the workplace drama and compelling, multi-arc character development, the series seeks to explore Shakespearean theater: its depth, its vulnerability, and its potential demise.
In effective and inventive ways, Slings & Arrows both marks and tests the limits of television Shakespeare. Entrapped like Oliver's ghost and limited by the story arcs and closure of Shakespeare's individual plays, the seasons of Slings & Arrows become a series by depending on the company and its guest stars, the visiting actors and directors. At the same time, the actors and writers closely engage with Shakespeare's plays and language while reflecting upon their own performance conditions in several media. While Shakespeare's plays do not support the long-term, sustained serial development that television as a medium exploits best, Slings & Arrows offers rich insights into intermedial Shakespeare because of the ways in which the series performs Shakespeare's plays and language while exploring the technical and formal aspects that distinguish television now as a medium, the genres that have emerged in its development, and the commercial negotiations that support both its creation and circulation to audiences. All three of these levels of engagement affect the movement of Shakespeare between media and, just as important, influence the audiences that encounter his work across media.
In its seasonal focus and series-long negotiation with using TV to celebrate theater, Slings & Arrows shows how deeply and mutually implicated are staged and televised Shakespeares. The shifts across performance media prove central to the charm and importance of Slings & Arrows, as its three-season arc registers provocative self-awareness and raises increasingly pressing questions about how differing media that represent Shakespeare influence each other. What Slings & Arrows underscores is that any examination of a particular performance medium — whether it is live theater or television — now operates within and draws upon a performance universe of increasingly multiple media options. As a result, it should be no surprise when the series that propels us into an appreciation of Shakespearean theater also points us towards the unavoidable and potentially enriching relations between television and cinema. Shakespeare thrives now through the creative use of intermedial performance differences.


1.   For more detail on the Canadian contexts for the series and international implications, see Laurie E. Osborne, "'A local habitation and a name': Television and Shakespeare" (Osborne 2008).
2.   All embedded TV clips from Slings & Arrows come from the Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project at: The clips are generally in .mov format and will all open in Quicktime. There may be a short delay as they load into the player.


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Film Clip 1: Season 1, episode 1 of Slings & Arrows: "Oliver's Dream." Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project.

Film Clip 2: Interview with Paul Gross. Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project.

Film Clip 3: Season I, episode 3 of Slings & Arrows: "Madness in Great Ones." Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project.

Film Clip 4: Interview with Paul Gross. Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project.

Film Clip 5: Interview with Martha Burns. Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project.

Film Clip 6: Season I, episode 4 of Slings & Arrows: "Fair is Foul and Foul is Fair." Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project.

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