“There is one thing…I just happen to believe this play is the single greatest achievement in Western art. We’ve got that going for us.” – Geoffrey
In many ways, “A Mirror Up to Nature” is the quintessential episode of Slings and Arrows. When I think of this show, I think of this episode first and foremost. It is a collection of, to me, iconic moments, punctuated by beautiful speeches, massive breakthroughs, and the juxtaposition of beams of hope radiating out from the bleakest darkness.
So why am I having so much trouble figuring out what to write about it?
It’s possible I hyped this one up too much in my own head, but I think the episode itself might prove tricky, too. You see, not a whole lot of plot actually happens. And yet, a TON happens.
In terms of actual story movement, we have Holly and Richard (starting to show signs of both a poisoned soul and a reluctance to continue following Holly) enacting their endgame: seizing control of the Board of Directors in order to deploy a musical-heavy, commercial-friendly season at New Burbage, as well as the “Shakespeareville” rebranding.
Richard does everything in his power to sabotage Hamlet, from planting seeds of ennui in Ellen, to completely removing the preview period, to ripping out Jack’s confidence just before final dress. We see signs that Richard has the capacity to be a true monster.
In rehearsals, which are already underway, we have a Geoffrey who transitions for detached apathy to alpha dog of the pack, his ennui shaken by both Oliver and problematic cast members. Jack Crews keeps paraphrasing. Ellen is phoning it in. Claire is “absolutely horrible”.
Regarding that last one, there is no effective way to paraphrase this, so just watch:
I mean, my God, it’s basically everything you want from this show, from the complete absurdity of Claire’s choices to Geoffrey’s brilliant, impassioned breakdown of the text. His interpretation moves me to tears…and even moves Claire, who is physically incapable of doing this.
This is hardly the only stirring piece of Geoffrey speechifying. Indeed, part of the reason I love this episode is because it’s filled with Geoffrey breaking down moments in Hamlet so beautifully. Another highlight is his walkthrough of the infamous “To Be or Not To Be” speech for Jack, understandably concerned that “When I say [the speech] the audience will hear every great actor who ever said those words…they won’t be in the play anymore.”
It’s a credit to the writing and a credit to Jack how insightful this comment is, and that Jack would be so attuned to the audience being “pulled out of the play”, as it were. But even more so, it is a credit to Geoffrey, who meets this concern not with any kind of judgement, but with strong paternal guidance. Make a choice, Jack. Use this idea of performance, because that’s exactly what Hamlet is doing. And once that speech begins, Luke Kirby makes the choice clear as day, in yet another finely acted moment.
Geoffrey beams with pride as he watches Jack – there may just be a Hamlet in this kid after all. With Jack connecting and Claire thankfully dispatched by a loose chameleon and replaced by Kate, things actually start to look up for the show. But Geoffrey still has to deal with Ellen.
I look at the moment where Geoffrey reams Ellen out as that where Geoffrey finally gets his courage back. All season long we’ve been watching a redemption story for a fallen man. Now, here, he looks the woman who broke his heart right in the face, and tells her the thing she most dreads hearing – that she no longer cares, and doesn’t speak for the rest of the company. It is no coincidence that Geoffrey’s sure-footedness here happens in the same episode we get concrete proof that Oliver is a real ghost (by way of releasing the chameleon on Claire, because he just had to get rid of her).
Breakthroughs abound, but the obstacles surmount as well. Jack gets out of his own way, but Richard reminds him of the low expectations the audience will have. Ellen has been shaken out of her complacency, but caring is a dangerous thing for a neurotic woman aware of the shortcomings of her situation (again, courtesy of Richard).
And Geoffrey? Geoffrey trusts Shakespeare, Hamlet, and Hamlet. That’s all he’s got left. And it may just be enough.
“It’s the Method, duckie, he’s making it his own. That’s how they do it in America.”
Jack Crewe won’t say Hamlet’s lines. He knows them, but he refuses to speak them until “it feels right.” It’s frustrating and confusing for his castmates, and doesn’t make hurtling into the bard’s biggest role any less daunting. Jack is putting Shakespeare’s text on a pedestal which need not exist.
He’s surprised that Kate read Hamlet at age 10. Starting with the text younger does take away some of that “shakes-fear” that “translators” (and Richard) are so fond of peddling, but the fear really seems to be a more recent cultural adoption. We’re told to be afraid of tackling the big bad bard… and so we are. I won’t go into my full anti-translation rant here, but I do invite you to read it HERE on Drown My Books. It’s an issue near and dear to my heart.
It’s fine to use paraphrasing as a tool to help you make performance decisions, or what your perspective is for discussion. “The actor tells the story with his choices and the text,” says Geoffrey. Who is Jack’s Hamlet’s audience? You have to know in order to convey the story properly, and here that’s up to both Geoffrey and Jack as they navigate into deeper water.
Jack points out that he’s especially afraid of the soliloquy in 3.1 because as soon as he starts in on that damn famous speech the audience will be tuning into every time they’ve ever heard it before and won’t be listening to him. “I’ll just be some guy acting.” And, ah, Geoffrey: “Isn’t that who Hamlet is?”
Meanwhile, Claire… I can’t, actually. She makes me physically ill with her twirling and babbling in a poor attempt at feigning madness without seeking the further life within the text for Ophelia. Geoffrey schools her on Ophelia’s child-like and broken state of mind and drops the mic in her face. Or, at least, that’s how I remember it.
In his dream, a confident Geoffrey presents his naked self to an appreciative (if invisible) audience. Without a budget or a plan, he takes this as a sign that his actors should bare themselves (their souls, not their bodies, though I’ve seen that done, too) through this production to reach the audience. Not everyone is pleased with this decision. Richard warns that it could devolve into amateurism and that the paying audience will expect to see sets and costumes. Ellen complains that she can’t see the play she’s in without sets or costumes.
What is actually going to tell the story, though? A set and lavish costumes, or the words and the actors conducting them? I love me some budget theatre, but you’ve got to plan that stuff – you can’t just slap a tudor wig and a bumroll on someone and expect it to land. Each production of the play adds someone else’s voices to the story’s history. Is your voice an empty pyrotechnic cry, or a meaningful, truthful whisper? You can show truth with or without a budget, you just have to mean it.
May I take a moment to say ‘Fuck you, Richard,’ since I said it aloud so often watching this episode. I know he’s under Holly’s spell, but to scoff that you’re unsure that your subscriber base may not even know that William Shakespeare wrote Pericles and Troilus and Cressida is not a reason to dismiss them as part of your season. I’d see that as an opportunity to fill a void. Well, except maybe don’t do Troilus and Cressida – not every play is a beautiful shining gem. Even so, a lot of the “lesser-knowns” deserve to be done more often if only to show people that Shakespeare wrote more than great tragedy and a few cross-dressing comedies.
Watch along with us:
1) Borrow the complete series DVDs from a friend. Trust me; someone you know owns them. If you want to drop the cash, they sell the DVDs in the Shakespeare Theatre Company gift shop and on Amazon, where the whole series is $38.99.
2) Netflix! has the series available on DVD.
3) Amazon Prime. If you’re paying for the year-round two-day shipping ($74.99 a year), you already get it for free as part of their unlimited streaming content.)
4) Amazon Instant. $1.99 per episode, or $8.99 for each whole season.
Stray Observations and Quotes:
Geoffrey’s small-talk with May is a nice way to jump ahead, time-wise. Especially with rehearsals so hotly anticipated by the viewer.
Maria is naturally the first one to notice Geoffrey’s bouts of craziness.
“Been done before, 1964, Gielgud and Burton.”
“That just proves it was a good idea.” – Geoffrey and Oliver discussing doing Hamlet on a bare stage in rehearsal clothes. I love this exchange because it’s such an ego-free move by Slings and Arrows, to basically say, “yes, we are doing what has been done before, because we admire it.”
“…[D]rama is that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith. Poetic faith. It’s a beautiful idea. Of course it falls apart if one of the actors isn’t very good at pretending.” – Geoffrey. An absolutely beautiful soundbite turned hilarious in the end, and punctuated by a beautiful smash-cut to Claire’s “mad” scene.
“I’m playing madness.” Note from Actor-John: This is just a beautiful bit of hackery given to Claire from the writers, because you DON’T PLAY EMOTION, CLAIRE! GAHHHHHHH!!! As Geoffrey says “Claire, Claire, Claire with the hair…”
“The sole virtue of the ineffectual is consistency.” – Oliver
I love the effortlessness and detail Geoffrey puts into his nine play season for Richard. A mix of the apocryphal, the contemporary, a new play commission (“Do we dare?,” jokes Geoffrey)…”and for dessert, Blithe Spirit!” It sounds like a real classical theatre season.
Kate’s story about connecting to Ophelia at age 10 is sweet, and the show is not ignorant of how weird that actually is, courtesy of “wookies on my pillow” former-nerd Jack. A lovely little moment for the children who love classical theatre.
Ok, I’ll say it: Slings and Arrows might have one fault, and that’s that it plays the “musical theatre is the epitome of theatrical evil” card a bit too often. Holly is a monster and fast turning Richard into one, but I do wish the show would sometimes delineate that musical theatre is not necessarily a horrible thing, even for New Burbage.
Geoffrey dreams of himself naked, onstage, having been lulled to sleep by Oliver’s ghostly-massage. Some on-the-nose imagery, but the show earns it.
“I’d like a coffee. Black.”
“Cream and sugar?”
“Yes, black.” – the Geoffrey/Anna comedy hour, ladies and gents!
“Shakespeare didn’t care about anachronism, and neither should we.” – Geoffrey, encouraging his actors to be free with their wardrobe choices. A nice reminder on that same “putting the play on a pedestal” theme Caitlin wrote about.
The exchange shared by Geoffrey and Jack, about the simple task of making an acting choice and playing one thing, is one of my favorite things this show has ever done. So true, and one of those parts of acting that seems so deceptively easy, yet can be the hardest thing in the world.
Tellingly, the moment we discover that Ellen cares again is her screaming “Shit!” in response to not being in the right headspace at half-hour. This actor approves.
Holly’s “Shakespeaveville” idea is so horrible that it literally kills May.
A Stray from Caitlin: “I need also add that while Geoffrey was giving encouragement to his cast, and said ‘find your light say your lines. If you can’t find your light shout your lines from the shadows,’ my husband, [lighting designer] Andrew F. Griffin, added, ‘and then the LD will murder you.'”