Sometimes a specific episode of a television show comes along and causes us to sit back in satisfied awe at the wonder we have witnessed. These are the episodes we refer to as classic without any trace of hyperbole. Slings & Arrow’s “Birnam Wood” is one such episode.
THE SERIES: Slings and Arrows
THE EPISODE: “Birnam Wood”
I’ve written about Canadian series Slings and Arrows before, well aware that a series that discusses and performs as much Shakespeare as this series does is a difficult sell. Set in the fictional, New Burbage Shakespeare Festival in the fictional town of New Burbage, Slings and Arrows revolves around the festival’s attempts to remain financially profitable while crafting artistically effective theatre. The series’ bickering, complicated characters and absurd, sometimes dark, humor keeps the series from being too high-brow.
Trying to choose one episode of the series is a tricky proposition, since every episode is pretty connected to the one that came before it, and the season premieres are never the show’s strongest episodes. So I decided to choose the episode I have watched more than any other episode. With a little context, the season two finale, “Birnam Wood” works as a brilliant example of everything the show does best.
(From this point on, SPOILERS are present. Read at your own risk. You’ve been warned.)
Season 2 centers on Geoffrey Tennant’s (Paul Gross) play, Macbeth and Darren Nicholls’s (Don McKellar) play, Romeo and Juliet. Geoffrey is plagued by both the ghost of his late mentor, Oliver (Stephen Ouimette), who questions and argues with Geoffrey at every turn (much of the series humor stems from people observing Geoffrey arguing with Olive, but only seeing Geoffrey arguing with the empty air.) and egotistical, lead actor, Henry Breedlove (Geraint Wyn Davies), who refuses to take any of Geoffrey’s stage directions.
Geoffrey devises a plan to force Henry to remain off balance throughout opening night, and with the cast’s help, Henry finds himself forced into giving the performance Geoffrey wanted from him the entire time.
The audience loves the play, and Geoffrey’s vision is vindicated. Darren, in contrast, has sucked all of the life out of his play by forcing the actors to perform in metallic chess piece costumes and speak their lines in an emotionless monotone.
Geoffrey agrees to talk with Darren regarding his directing choices, bursting into false tears in order to convince him of the play’s emotional power and the wrong-headedness of his approach.
Check ou the scene below:
Darren decides to scrap everything he had done and restores the life, vitality, and passion the tragedy needs to thrive.
Meanwhile, we have Richard (Mark McKinney), the financial director who uses his advertising budget to “rebrand” the Festival for a younger market. Frog Hammer, the advertising company hired to create the new campaign, creates advertisements that insult the festival’s patrons and emphasizes their worst reviews.
Season ticket holders cancel their subscriptions in droves, and when the head of Frog Hammer is revealed to be a wanted con artist, Richard realizes he may have sunk the festival he loves so much. However, on opening night, he sees the “youth quake” Frog Hammer promised has materialized, and there are hundreds of young people demanding tickets to Macbeth.
The episode ends with both plays successful, Richard’s gamble paying off, and Geoffrey reuniting with his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Macbeth female lead, Ellen (Martha Burns).
Why I Love this Episode:
This episode captures both the high drama and emotional stakes connected with both staging a play and running a festival. The fact that Macbeth emerges as such a success makes the character drama surrounding its staging all the more effective. Its triumph makes the fighting and desperate measures taken to ensure the play seen is the version Geoffrey wants seem more. . .worthwhile. Geoffrey has no idea if the audience will respond to how he has staged the play, as that is unknowable until an audience actually sees it, and their pleasure directed at the production justifies his passion for his artistic vision.
One reason I always cite season 2 as my favorite season of Slings and Arrows relates to the how the season allows two of its least sympathetic characters, Richard and Darren, their moments of humanity. Richard’s season 2 plotline is bookended by his season one quest to destroy Geoffrey and turn the festival into a Shakespeare theme park and season three’s descent into obnoxious arrogance and a neglecting of everything connected to the festival save for the musical his script rewrite helps to save. Here, though, he emerges as a character who clearly loves the theatre. Both Richard and Geoffrey take massive risks this season, and both manage to pay off. Yet, the series makes clear Richard succeeds through dumb luck, while Geoffrey succeeds, because he is an artistic genius. Richard wants to be Geoffrey, artistically brilliant and driven, but he has to settle for managing the finances, an essential but soulless endeavor. This season makes Richard’s risk, which seems doomed to failure from the onset, such a pitiful endeavor that the viewer cannot help but pity how he blindly follows Frog Hammer’s advice, despite how misguided it seems.
Darren, on the other hand, exists as the anti-Geoffrey. He hates the theatre and tries to mask his contempt behind avant-garde, pretentious dreck.
This season offers a small glimpse into the human being lurking underneath the theatrical clichés. When he casts aside his dreadfully surreal, lifeless production of Romeo and Juliet, proclaiming he wants to do a more traditional version of the play, shouting to the rafters, “I have a soul,” it’s an exhilarating, lovely moment.
Check it out below:
One of the things I love about this show in general is how fresh it makes Shakespeare’s plays seem. Geoffrey’s version of Macbeth is a version I would want to see, and the scenes from the opening night performance feel vibrant and exciting. It looks like such a dark, brutal, thrilling production, I’m sorry this version of the play never was really performed.
There’s also a line in this episode that may be my favorite line of the series. While watching Romeo and Juliet from backstage, Ellen tells Geoffrey she hates this play because, no one ever feels this kind of passion in real life, so all reality can ever provide is disappointing by comparison. Geoffrey responds that he finds the play, “painfully accurate. Two idiots, meet, fall in love, they’re happy, briefly, then everything goes to Hell. It happens everyday.” On one level, it’s a lovely way to provide a more mundane reading of the extreme, high, melodrama on display during Romeo and Juliet. It makes the play seem more relatable than the play has any right to be. One another level, of course, he is talking about his relationship with Ellen. They love each other, and both know they love each other. However, they always fall apart, because they will always put the theatre before themselves. Acting in and directing theatrical productions will always be their priorities. However, by the episode’s end, they are back in each other’s arms, ready to once again try to function as a happy, content, couple. Despite the risks they know come with being together, they expose their vulnerabilities and dive headlong back into a relationship.
This episode triumphs as a celebration of characters the series clearly loves, the transformative nature and universal appeal of the theatre, and the value of revolutionary thinkers.
Slings and Arrows is available to purchase on DVD and Blu-ray, as well as available to stream through Netflix and Amazon (free to Prime members).
So, what do you think? Are you a fan of Slings and Arrows? Is there another episode you think we should cover? Another series at which you want us to look? Let us know in the comments!