Reviewed by David Spencer
I'll alert you when I get to the low key but nonetheless inside scoop, which may be an exclusive to Aisle Say. I've not seen it mentioned anywhere else in print, anyway, but I can vouch for its accuracy; it was told me by a member of the Slings & Arrows team.
But a preamble first:
We here in America don't know that much about the Canadian show business community—oh, a little more than once we did, due to the few comics and actors who successfully migrate, all the TV shot in Canada and the odd import to cable or PBS—but save for those of us who are incurable fanboys and fangirls in the various manifestations of the malady, we don't know really who their celebrities are, or even what Canadian celebrity for an actor is about. Because it's a very different deal, and a much more modest affair: less money, less international notoriety, less glamour. I won't go into the details of that, but it does lead me to the name of William Hutt.
He entered retirement some years ago, after a distinguished stage career of decades, with a few minor detours to film and TV. In America the impact went unnoticed, but Up There he was legend, and those who knew his work would tell you he was one of the English speaking world's greatest actors. And of course among the reasons why word never much spread beyond Canada was that his best work, his most transcendent work, never made it to the screen (except perhaps once: his James Tyrone in Long Day's Journey Into Night was taped for Canadian television). Particularly neglected was his Lear, reputedly in a class by itself.
So—and here's the promised inside info—the creator-writers of the phenomenal backstage TV "dramedy" Slings & Arrows—Susan Coyne, Mark McKinney and Bob Martin—decided to rectify that in the show's third and final season. Well, rectify it somewhat. By writing a part for him. Actors have TV roles written for them all the time. What’s significant is what the part allows him to do.
Each previous season of S&A has centered around the production of a Shakespeare play at the fictional New Burbage Festival: season one was about the trials and tribulations surrounding a Hamlet, starring a young American movie star hoping to make his bones in the theatre; season two saw the battle to achieve a Macbeth, whose star was a talented but complacent and creatively lazy middle aged actor who needed to be shocked into risk...
...so it would only make sense that the S&A trilogy would end with beleaguered artistic director Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross), trying to get a grip on King Lear, his star this time an old actor named Charles Kingman, respected and brilliant but wanting to play Lear once before he dies—dies imminently, that is, because he has cancer.
And of course, Hutt is playing Kingman. It's an absolutely breathtaking bit of casting and role-tailoring, because Hutt is a hulking and formidable presence, with a voice that shakes the rafters at peak, and achieves a rich resonant growl when low; and Kingman is no pussycat: always a difficult actor, he's even more temperamental now that the grim reaper is practically parked in his driveway. But he's also clearly a Titan. And whatever your frame of reference—is it Hutt playing Lear; or Hutt playing Kingman playing Lear?—it matters not, because S&A gives Hutt the opportunity to create Kingman and preserve the best of whatever Lear you care to label it, and in both roles, Hutt is spectacularly effective and memorable in the way that only legends can be. It's a fascinating way to have preserved his legacy.
In other words, he fits right into the tradition of Slings and Arrows, arguably one of the five or ten best hour long series shows produced for the tube since 1981. (That's the year Hill Street Blues renovated the face of TV drama by bringing continuing long-arc storylines [previously only the purview of soap opera] into the mainstream. Slings & Arrows is a child of the post-Hill Street era.) Aside from being the most accurate dramatization of backstage life ever created, it is freshly, brilliantly written, rarely fails to surprise, and features characters every bit as engaging and resonant as Kingman. Of the favorites returning, aside from Paul Gross as Tennant, there's Martha Burns (Gross' real-life wife) as self-absorbed but devoted actress Ellen Fanshaw; Don McKellar as fatuous and trendy director Darren Nichols; S&A co-author Mark McKinney as the driven but ever-misguided business manager Richard Smith-Jones; and S&A co-author Susan Coyne as his polar opposite, the ever-sincere and well meaning executive administrative assistant, Anna Conroy.
And I'm happy to say, rumors of the death of Stephen Ouimette's dead character—the ghost of former artistic director Oliver Welles—have been greatly exaggerated. The surprise, this time out, is that someone other than Geoffrey can see him. But that's the only mild spoiler you'll get from me.
If there's a carp about Season Three, it's that the secondary New Burbage Festival production (there are always two: the Shakespeare production that is the focus of the main plot, and another for sub-plot) is this time a new musical. And neither the musical nor the excerpts we see and hear are believable; here the authors cross the line from sharp satire into bald parody and it even seems as if musicals as an art form are being disdained. (Ironic, as co-author Bob Martin, co-star Don McKellar and the authors of the faux musical's numbers, who also wrote the novelty songs that open and close each episode [Lisa Lambert & Greg Morrison] are the creative team of the unabashedly musicals-loving Broadway hit The Drowsy Chaperone.) But the false notes don't sound for long, and the intrigues (artistic and political) that affect the musical are accurate enough. And indeed, they eventually overshadow extreme silliness of the musical itself, which brings S&A back to the top of its game.
One final note: Unlike Seasons One and Two, Season Three is not as comfortable a standalone tale for newbies. This one is a wrap up to the trilogy, and in many ways a reward for the loyal followers who have hung in. (Not that newbies wouldn't pick up the threads—the storytelling is clear—but these particular threads are tying up relationships and dynamics long in play, long in progress.) The good news is, Acorn Video has released the previous seasons in two relatively cheap DVD box sets. They're not expensive (less than $20 each from DeepDiscountdvd.com, almost always the best place for legit vids cheap, no tax, no shipping fee—and no, I'm not getting perks for hawking the service or the product, just wanted you to know, is all), and worth every penny because you'll watch them multiple times and share them with friends. Odds are, anyway. I quite literally don't know anyone who discovered S&A and then didn't copy or burn the eps. off their DVR for permanence and passing on, or buy the box sets for themselves and as gifts: it is truly that addictive and that good.
Even worth giving up a night—or three—at the theatre for...