Slings & Arrows: A Love Letter to the Theatre

You read a book. Or see a play. Maybe watch a movie. At the end you are filled, perhaps even satiated with a sense of humanity that fills you with something far more than entertainment, something far greater than laughter or tears. You are able, through that particular book or play or movie or painting or television show or song or sculpture or dance or puppet show or poem, to see yourself refracted through the lives and experiences of others. This is no simple mirror, but rather a prism: great art takes us and breaks us up into shards of color. Each hue separate and unique, but in the end, all part of the spectrum that blends back into what it means to be human.

We’ve all experienced this moment. Some of us find it through different mediums and often through different stories. I’m sure that someone, somewhere experienced this moment after seeing or hearing Cats. I will, most likely, never understand that particular vehicle, but I can at the very least respect that moment of jouissance.

I’ve spent the last three days in such a state of jouissance and find that writing about how I feel toward the Canadian television series Slings & Arrows to be as difficult as describing the exact taste of cinnamon to someone who has never tasted it.

If you have worked in the theatre, you should watch this series. Full stop. No ifs ands or buts about it. Slings & Arrows is one of the most deeply felt love letters to the art and process and lifestyle of theatre that has ever been written, staged, or filmed. I am not engaging in hyperbole here. Writers Susan Coyle, Bob Martin, and Mark McKinney and director Peter Wellington are obviously deeply in love with theatre in general and Shakespeare in particular. And it shows. Yes, people and situations are heightened or foreshortened or slightly warped by the demands of drama and television. However, beneath all the comic, tragi-comic, or tragic moments the show has a foundation of truth and honesty about what it means to make a life in the theatre, and to make theatre your life. The sheer terror of committing oneself to a creative act and the giddiness when that act actually achieves some level of artistic success are on display in this series like few other stories I’ve seen that take place in the theatre world.

I could go on about the plot or the characters but you can get that from Wikipedia. I could write about how each season does a masterful job of telling a story that reflects and refracts each particular Shakespeare play that is at the center of each season (Hamlet in season one, Macbeth in season two, and King Lear in season three), but to be honest, I would need to see the entire series again to really examine the masterful structures that were built into the show. I could reflect on how compelling an actor Paul Gross is and how much I’ve enjoyed his work since the silly, but sweet show, Due North as well as his work as Brian in the original adaptation of Armistad Maupin’s Tales of the City, but that won’t really tell anything worth a damn about Slings & Arrows.

So I will simply say: watch this show. If you have Netflix, it’s available as dvd and through the instant streaming function. If you don’t, find the dvds and rent or buy them. If you care about theatre or Shakespeare, trust me, you will want to buy them. The one caveat I might mention, is that I don’t think this is particularly aimed for a young audience. Not that you have to be older to enjoy it, but I have a feeling (and since I haven’t fully processed all of what the show has offered me I wouldn’t swear to it) that part of my reaction, this deep blending of laughter, joy, sadness, and recognition, comes from the fact that I am not a young man any more. I think that the show speaks more to those of us in our forties or older than it does to those in their twenties. This is a show, on one level, about ghosts, and the older you become, the more ghosts you carry within yourself. Even if they are simply the ghosts of your younger selves.

If the following trailer looks at all interesting, I can guarantee that you will find the show itself to be, at the very least, delightful. I hope that maybe, just maybe, you might also experience a hint of what I am feeling about this show as I write these words.