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Slings and Arrows is a Canadianmarker TV series, set at the fictional New Burbage Festival; a troubled Shakespearean festival similar to the real-world Stratford Festival. The program stars Paul Gross, Stephen Ouimette and Martha Burns.

The blackly comic series first aired on Canada's Movie Central and The Movie Network channels in 2003, and received wide acclaim in the United States when it was shown there on the Sundance Channel two years later. Three seasons of six episodes each were filmed in total, with the final season airing in Canada in the summer of 2006 and in the United States in early 2007.

Slings and Arrows was created and the entire series was written by former Kids in the Hall member Mark McKinney, playwright and actress Susan Coyne, and comedian Bob Martin, the Tony-award winning co-creator of The Drowsy Chaperone. All three appear in the series as well. The entire series was directed by Peter Wellington.

Plot summary

Season One

The show's central characters are actor/director Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross), New Burbage artistic director Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette), and actress Ellen Fanshaw (Martha Burns), who seven years previously collaborated on a legendary production of "Hamlet". Midway through one of the performances, Geoffrey suffered a nervous breakdown, jumped into Ophelia's grave and then ran screaming from the stage. After that, he was committed to a psychiatric institution.

When the series begins, Geoffrey is in Toronto, running a small company, "Théâtre Sans Argent" (French for "Theatre Without Money"), on the verge of being evicted. Oliver and Ellen have stayed at New Burbage, where Oliver has gradually been commercializing his productions and the festival. On the opening night of the New Burbage's "A Midsummer Night's Dream", Oliver sees Geoffrey on the news, chained to his theater. Heavily drunk, Oliver calls Geoffrey from a payphone and they argue about the past. Oliver then passes out in the street and is run over and killed by a truck bearing the slogan "Canada's Best Hams."

Geoffrey's blistering eulogy at Oliver's funeral about the state of the festival leads to him being asked to take over Oliver's job on a temporary basis. After clashing with an old rival, Darren Nichols (Don McKellar), Geoffrey is reluctantly forced to take over directing the festival's latest production of "Hamlet". Making this difficult are Jack Crew (Luke Kirby), the insecure American film star cast as Hamlet; Geoffrey's former lover Ellen, who is playing Gertrude and dating a much younger man; and Oliver, now haunting both Geoffrey and the festival as a ghost. Also in the play is apprentice actress Kate (Rachel McAdams), who finds herself falling for Jack.

On the business side of the festival, New Burbage manager Richard Smith-Jones (Mark McKinney) is seduced by one of his sponsors, American executive Holly Day (Jennifer Irwin) who wants to remake New Burbage into a shallow, commercialized "Shakespeareville".

Title Episode Airdate
"Oliver's Dream" #1, 101 November 3, 2003
"Geoffrey Returns" #2, 102 November 10, 2003
"Madness in Great Ones" #3, 103 November 17, 2003
"Outrageous Fortune" #4, 104 November 24, 2003
"A Mirror up to Nature" #5, 105 December 1, 2003
"Playing the Swan" #6, 106 December 8, 2003


Season Two

The second season follows the New Burbage production of "Macbeth".

Richard is desperate for money to keep the company going, and Geoffrey, frustrated over what he sees as a lack of commitment from his actors, suggests downsizing the company. A new actor, Henry Breedlove (Geraint Wyn Davies), arrives to star in a production of Macbeth, which Geoffrey is reluctant to direct because of its supposed difficulty (though he doesn't believe in the curse of "The Scottish Play").

Richard finds funding in the form of a government grant that comes with a catch—it may be used only for "rebranding." So, Richard hires an avant-garde advertising agency, Froghammer, to promote and rebrand the festival. Sanjay (Colm Feore), the head of Froghammer, launches a series of shock advertisements and manipulates Richard into accepting them.

Elsewhere at the festival, Darren has returned from an artistic rebirth in Germany to direct a version of "Romeo and Juliet" in which the actors don't touch or even look at each other, much to the chagrin of the couple playing the lead roles. The festival's administrator, Anna Conroy (Susan Coyne), copes with an influx of interns and begins a romance with a playwright doing a reading at the festival.

Ellen undergoes a tax audit, in preparation for which she is able to explain the "business purpose" of such theatrical necessities as lipstick and a push-up bra.

Meanwhile, Geoffrey obsesses over directing Macbeth, antagonizes his cast and crew, and starts seeing Oliver's ghost again, all of which make Ellen fear for his sanity.

Title Episode Airdate
"Season's End" #7, 201 June 27, 2005
"Fallow Time" #8, 202 July 4, 2005
"Rarer Monsters" #9, 203 July 11, 2005
"Fair is Foul and Foul is Fair" #10, 204 July 18, 2005
"Steeped in Blood" #11, 205 July 25, 2005
"Birnam Wood" #12, 206 August 1, 2005


Season Three

The third season follows the New Burbage production of "King Lear".

The cast of Macbeth returns home after a successful run of the production on Broadway, where an old friend of Ellen's tells her to think about moving beyond New Burbage. As Richard tries to cope with being a success, Anna must deal with a group of stranded musicians and Darren is back in town, this time to direct a new musical, "East Hastings".

Geoffrey, meanwhile, has cast an aging theatre legend, Charles Kingman (William Hutt) as Lear, despite everyone's fears that the role will kill him. As rehearsals continue, Charles terrorizes Sophie (Sarah Polley), the actress playing Cordelia. Sophie is also involved in the rivalry between the young actors in Lear and the young actors in the musical, whose success soon outshadows the troubled Shakespeare production.

As things spiral out of control, Oliver returns to haunt and help, and Geoffrey seeks therapy from an unlikely source.

Title Episode Airdate
"Divided Kingdom" #13, 301 July 24, 2006
"Vex Not His Ghost" #14, 302 July 31, 2006
"That Way Madness Lies" #15, 303 August 7, 2006
"Every Inch a King" #16, 304 August 14, 2006
"All Blessed Secrets" #17, 305 August 21, 2006
"The Promised End" #18, 306 August 28, 2006


Trivia

The title is taken from Hamlet (Act 3, Scene 1) in the famous soliloquy:
"To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?"


The location New Burbage seems to be in reference to Richard Burbage the main actor in Shakespeare's company the King's Men.

Each season's production problems mirrors the play the company is performing.

Paul Gross is most famous for the role of Benton Fraser in the series Due South. Benton, like Geoffrey, is haunted by a ghost, although otherwise the nature of each role is strikingly different.

Several of the cast and creators have longstanding connections with each other and with the Stratford Festival; in many cases they are playing parts that mirror their real-world involvement with the theatre. Oliver, the New Burbage director, is played by Ouimette, who has both acted and directed at Stratford. In the third season, aging Canadian theatre legend Charles is played by William Hutt, a stage actor who performed at Stratford in its first season and many of the 50 years that followed. In addition, Gross, Burns and Coyne have all acted at Stratford. Although Gross himself played the title role of Hamlet at Stratford in 2000, New Burbage's use of a movie star to play Hamlet most closely parallels the situation of action movie star Keanu Reeves being hired to play the role at Manitoba Theatre Centre in 1995. It is perhaps noteworthy that the Stratford Festival exists within the diegesis of Slings and Arrows, distinct from New Burbage, as evidenced by a third-season episode in which Kenneth Welsh (playing himself) mentions doing seven seasons at Stratford.

Gross and Burns, who play Geoffrey and Ellen, are married and, like their fictional counterparts, met while acting opposite each other. As young actors, Ouimette and Burns starred together in Romeo and Juliet and a photo of them in those roles can be seen in Ellen's dressing room. McKellar, who plays Darren, the avant-garde theatre director, is an indie film director and screenwriter who co-wrote Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, which starred Feore. Polley, who plays Sophie in the third season, is the daughter of Michael Polley, who plays one of the two older gay character actors who provide dry commentary throughout the series (and sing the credits). Finally, Coyne and Burns are old friends who helped co-found Toronto's Soulpepper Theatre Company.

The interior shots of the theatre in the show were filmed at the Sanderson Center in Brantford, Ontario, about fifty miles from the actual Stratford Festival upon which the show is loosely based.

The Drowsy Chaperone, the first Canadian musical to become a Broadway success in decades, was penned by some of the same people responsible for Slings and Arrows. Music and lyrics were by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, who wrote the witty title credit songs for Slings and Arrows, and the book was written by McKellar and Martin. Martin also starred in the show as the Man in the Chair. The third season of Slings and Arrows alludes to the Drowsy Chaperone success with subplots involving Canadians on Broadway and developing a new musical.

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