We begin, as with all great Shakespearian tales, with a story of contrasts.
On one side is toilet-unblocker extraordinare Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross), a director of a little two-bit theatre company in Toronto (Theatre Sans Argent no less!) which is all passion, all fire, all emotional honesty ...and yet absolutely no resources, run by a man (resembling Due South's Benton Fraser after a three-year bender in Vegas) who doesn't even want to install a phone or, apparently, sell any tickets in order to pay the rent. He did buy the plunger for the toilet though, and acts with it as well. Looking at the rest of the people in that troupe, I think the plunger would give the more convincing performance.
On the other side of the equation we have the New Burbage Festival: All money, all resources, no soul, no passion, the artistic director of which is Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette), a man who is living out his life (on and off-stage) by simply going through the motions and drinking expensive wines. Over the course of the day we see, Oliver has:
- Fallen out of love with the theatre. He is directing a Midsummer Night's Dream, doesn't care that Titania spends half the time with her back to the audience and is fixated more on bleating sheep than actual, ya know, acting.
- To deal with an ageing diva Ellen Fanshaw (Martha Burns), the aforementioned Titania, who appears to have a huge chip on her shoulder as well as an almost pathological dislike of Oliver (and indeed, everyone else).
- The General Manager and straight-laced accountant-type of the Festival, Richard Smith-Jones (Mark McKinney), telling him to think of New Burbage like a business not an art. In this same episode Richard finds out that the festival's major sponsor has undergone a management overhaul, and begins to become involved with the Corporate Devil herself, the amusingly named Holly Day (I won't mention that she is the most Canadian-sounding Texan that I have ever heard).
- His own sense of mortality: The ingenues are getting ever younger, he is haunted by his glory days of years past, and he spends his time spewing out 40-year-old anecdotes by more celebrated artists. Oliver is past his prime, his vision is stale and worse than that, he appears too depressed to care anymore.
Oliver is a sad, lonely man. Surrounded by people that he obviously doesn't know or want to know but content to think back on a time when everything was better (and look! There's Geoffrey!...with Ellen actually looking happy!).
So he does what any person would do under the same circumstances, and drinks himself into oblivion while watching Geoffrey get arrested for chaining himself to the Theatre Sans Argent after being evicted (despite fixing the toilet) "Now THAT's Theatre!".
Later that night and several bottles of alcohol later, just to add fuel to the fire, Oliver calls up Geoffrey on a pay-phone conveniently located by a busy road, and we find out that Geoffrey used to be the veritable glory-days of New Burbage; a power-house of talent and inspiration along with Ellen and Oliver. He was 'incandescent' as Hamlet but had a nervous breakdown on the stage seven years ago and fled the stage, leaving bitter feelings and broken hearts in his wake. We don't know what prompted Geoffrey's implosion at this time but we are given a hint that Oliver was responsible:
Oliver: "Everything I ever do will be compared to those three performances. You ruined my life"
Geoffrey: "I ruined YOUR life? You destroyed mine..you...you want to know why noone will speak to you? I'll tell you. It's not that you've ruined the festival although you have done that, and it's not just because you're a sell-out...."
Oliver hangs up. Then passes out. Unfortunately for him, he chooses to collapse into the middle of the main road behind him.
And now we go into a beautifully-shot alcohol-inspired flashback, back seven years to the opening night of Geoffrey and Oliver's Hamlet, where everyone is happy and all is well. Oliver, Geoffrey and Ellen are the toast of Canadian theatre after performing the best Hamlet since Burton and Olivier, and Geoffrey and Ellen are madly in love.
Geoffrey, on an adrenaline and Carlsberg high, proposes marriage and wants "to make a bunch of babies" with Ellen (who doesn't look particularly pleased at the news - something important to consider for future epiodes. I won't tell you the number of people who, in real-life, would eat their right arm to be in Ellen's position here, but it's enough to start a successful colony on Mars).
Oliver, who has to be satisfied with feeling up Geoffrey's ass, watches as Geoffrey and Ellen joyously leave to
Thus follows a well-thought out montage - nicely contrasting the Oliver, Geoffrey and Ellen we see in the flashback with the ones we have met today.
and, oh yeah, before I forget this minor plot point: Oliver, still unconscious in the shadows of the north-bound lane of the road, in the wee hours of the morning, fails to spot the enormous 'Canada's Best Hams' pig truck heading straight for him.
[EXEUNT OLIVER WELLES AND 1.01 OF SLINGS & ARROWS]
Review: It is nearly impossible to recap any episode of Slings & Arrows properly, given the complexity and over-lapping of the several plot-points which permeate throughout the series. This first episode is simply a "get to know these people" chapter (with some rather blatant and clunky exposition to boot) - we find out all the basics, yet are left asking the important questions (what DID happen to Geoffrey? What did Oliver do? Why does Ellen hate everything and everybody? What is Holly up to with Richard?) yet very little actually happens in terms of plot, with the exception of the last few seconds. There aren't many TV series out there who kill off their primary character after the first episode, but then this isn't most TV series.
Given the nature of 1.01, it actually works much better as part of the arc of the series than as a stand-alone episode. Watched alone as an introduction, it may put off casual viewers who would be distracted by the rather deliberate slow-pace of the episode, as well as the feeling that there are more questions asked than answered in the episode. But once you've seen through to 1.06 - rewatch 1.01 again, and suddenly everything else falls into place.
The slowness of the episode is representative of the tired grind that the characters are currently feeling - it comes across like they are trying to walk through quick sand. However there is a deliberate change in pace when we come to the flashback part - there is an incredible amount of energy and charisma from all actors and it serves beautifully to contrast with the lead-heavy feel of the rest of the episode.
Things to Note:
- Look at the contrast between the Oliver we see in this episode and the Oliver in future episodes. Completely different in attitude and mannerisms. Is this because he doesn't have the weight of the world on his shoulders?
- Also contrast the corporate sponsor speech we see in this episode with the one we see in 2.06. It is noted here how the sweaty middle-management makes a pathetic and soulless thank you for his volume of Shakespeare's novels and everyone else is giving out over-rehearsed platitudes. In 2.06, the corporate sponsor gives a heart-felt and emotional speech about love and Romeo & Juliet - there is no finesse, no rehearsal but pure emotion. It's nicely representative of the festival as a whole, under the two very-different artistic directors.
- That really is a terrible, over-inflated production of Midsummer's Night Dream isn't it? Jeez. I like how everyone is actually just watching or listening to the hockey game instead.
- Nahum/Nathum the security guard, was a theatre director in Nigeria apparently. It's nice that the western civilisation is the land of opportunity.
- It's interesting that, although Ellen appears to hate Oliver (and later Geoffrey), she has still kept that old photo of the three of them from the opening night of Hamlet and has it in her dressing room. She snaps Oliver's head off when he picks up the photo and it seems obvious that she blames Oliver for everything that happened between them all (although at this stage, we don't know what it is). It's the beginning of a nice build-up to seeing that Geoffrey and Ellen had a previous relationship, even before we see the flashback.
- Richard just gets goofier through the entire series doesn't he? I initially saw the series out of order, and when Richard made his first appearance in 1.01, I barely recognised him. I started liking Richard during his first encounter to Holly, where she blatantly hits on him and he is incredibly pleased just to get some attention, he is completely steam-rollered by her. Their relationship develops throughout the season but this episode introduces them both well.