Henry: “‘It is the bloody business which informs. Thus to mine eyes.’ Now, shall we get along with our own ‘bloody business’?” (company laughs)
Oliver: “He’s gotten better with age.”
Geoffrey: “Fuck you.”
Months have past since we last saw the New Burbage gang. Sponsors have fled, adjustments are being made, and new challenges rise in front of our heroes. As the wreaths are hung, and the trees are bought and stuffed in cabs and mounted, the New Burbage Festival readies its attack on the new season and its biggest challenge – Oliver’s Macbeth.
But is it Oliver’s, really, or will it be Geoffrey’s? That is the big question on the mind of the company, tactlessly given voice by Henry Breedlove (Geraint Wynn Davies) in front of the whole company. “Of course” it will be based on Oliver’s beloved notes, Geoffrey reassures, swallowing his rage at the pleasantly arrogant actor.
Breedlove represents the schism between Geoffrey and Oliver on this, and it signals a new approach for the second season of Slings and Arrows. Not content to simply repeat itself, the show seeks out a new calibration of its key pieces. Enemies become friends as threats come in from the outside world. Oliver transforms from the dead king Hamlet into the ghost of Banquo in Geoffrey’s eyes.
We continue to gain insight into Geoffrey’s fears of Macbeth as a piece through the metaphor of Oliver as the Banquo to our hero’s Macbeth. Geoffrey fantasizes about being the driver behind the wheel of the fateful ham truck which killed Oliver (guilt, perhaps?), and later sees Oliver manifest onstage of a grade school production of the play. Memory isn’t serving me well here, but the vibe I get from this and the previous episode is that Geoffrey has unresolved feelings in relation to Oliver’s actual death. We’ll see in subsequent weeks how right or wrong I am there.
Oliver claims that Geoffrey invited him back in. After all, we spent a large portion of the hour watching Geoffrey re-immerse himself into Oliver’s world. He watches (and laughs hysterically at) old video interviews of Oliver, and Anna brings him eight whole boxes (and a moquette!) of Oliver’s design concepts for his Macbeth. And though he wasn’t pleased to be put on the spot by Breedlove, it’s hard to ignore that Geoffrey is compelled by some of the ideas. In fact, he quickly takes to the idea of a thrust stage (to “erase the comfort barrier created by the proscenium arch”), and ends up costing Richard an extra 200 grand in the process. Though in Geoffrey’s defense, doing Oliver’s Macbeth WAS Richard’s idea.
Whatever the role of guilt in Geoffrey’s storyline, guilt is certainly playing a role in Richard’s life. As he is bluntly reminded by the Minister of Culture, the New Burbage Festival is facing financial crisis largely because he schtupped a board member. Though the Minister proves to be a tough opponent for him (she was former Minister of Health and happens to have perspective on things much more important than ART…oy), Richard manages to hold it together and get approval for a multi-million dollar grant. All he has to do is rebrand the company and get a young audience to show up!
Re-branding…oy. Anyone who has worked on the marketing side of theater must hear that word and feel the same pangs of recognition that I do. Where does one even start? In the case of New Burbage, the obvious choice to Richard is Frog Hammer, a hot, young company, very exclusive.
Enter Colm Feore.
Though he doesn’t have much to do this week, Colm Feore’s Sanjay Renye makes quite a first impression. We first meet him as he sizes up Richard through a two-way mirror, nailing all his personal shortfalls and quirks by simply looking at his tie and magazine choices. A quick pornographic audio clip later, and he’s making a face-to-face introduction to Richard.
The red flags seem obvious to the viewer. “Only when you’ve been in the deepest valley can you know how glorious it is on the highest mountain” might inspire more without the reminder that “Richard Nixon said that.” And then there’s this gem:
“We believe people are sick of being lied to. If you use truth, you can sell people anything! If you want them to react, to feel, to buy, tell them the truth! The truth is the new lie!”
It’s amazing how seamlessly the cynicism and idealism combine in that statement, as Sanjay easily wins Richard as a client. And what exactly does one use as the mission statement on this bold new campaign? How about “theatre…that fucks with your head.”
Yeah, that one just screams classical theatre company.
Instead of delving into Oliver’s piles of notes for Macbeth, Geoffrey watches the auto-biopic about Oliver titled (overtly symbolically), The King of New Burbage. In it, Oliver smarms through interviews about himself and his craft, seeming not to be a true person at all. So when he answers “why the Scottish tragedy as his obsession” with “It’s a play of such power that one literally dares not say its name,” that is not a clear answer – just one he thought would sound cool on camera. He’s not being truthful or human, and it’s muddling his message more than projecting it. It’s an obvious mental block for him, too, but we’ll come back to that next week.
Geoffrey offers to uphold one of Oliver’s traditions of attending a local elementary school performance of Shakespeare. Hooray! Kids! Doing… WHAT THE HELL IS THAT?!
And now, a word from my soapbox: Narration, if you have to, is okay. Here, at least, it tells our audience the story of the play, and makes it just the right balance of gruesome and innocent to create an odd mashup of emotions for Geoffrey. HOWEVER – those kids are not saying Shakespeare’s words, AND THEY COULD BE. You had a chance here, people. A chance to showcase how cool it is to hear kids speaking Shakespeare AND YOU CHOSE NOT TO. And why? What do we gain from this? That one line: “I don’t understand life. it just goes on and on with no purpose. I’m so sad,” (instead of “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…”) that Oliver gets to exploit as if it completely encapsulates the essence of Macbeth’s mental state in this moment. KIDS CAN DO SHAKESPEARE USING HIS OWN WORDS AND I WILL NOT STAND FOR THIS LIE. Some of the best Macbeths I’ve seen onstage have been 10 years old, and they totally delivered the goods for “out out brief candle…” Good day, Oliver, you pompous git. I SAID GOOD DAY.
By the time my red-hot rage cooled, Geoffrey was settling in for first read and trying to nonchalantly brush off the curse by saying “They’re words on a page – let’s not let our imaginations get away with us.” SHAME, Geoffrey, SHAME. You know they’re not just dead words on a page – they live whenever they’re read (in your head or on the stage), and throughout the centuries and over the years they still have the power to inspire everyone with fear. So I guess what I’d say if I’m trying to sum, is “something wicked this way comes…”
Christopher Henley adds:
It seems strange that Oliver Welles would never have directed Macbeth. It’s one of the more frequently programmed of Shakespeare’s tragedies and tends to be, at least in my experience, one of the most reliable ticket sellers. I’ve seen three Michael Kahn-directed productions…and missed other STC productions of it. Would anyone have run a New Burbage type company and possibly have avoided The Scottish Play? It doesn’t seem likely to me, even if he was holding out for the ideal lead in Henry Breedlove.
It’s totally true that certain types of wildly efficient people absolutely dread help of the sort provided by interns. Anna’s reaction to the news that the intern program is being revived was, for me, one of those big “I’ve had that exact reaction!” laughs provided by this series. Sadly, many people learn the wrong lesson from this observation and become incapable of any ability to delegate at all, and end up alienating others who are willing and capable of relieving some of their burden.
I have mixed feelings about Geoffrey’s attitude toward the Oliver legacy regarding Macbeth. I’m not sure why, given his rather robust aesthetic as he approached other challenging Shakespeare plays, he is so “stuck” as regards Macbeth. I wonder if it might have felt more authentic if he had felt confident about his own approach, and then grudgingly came to realize the value of some of Oliver’s conceptual or design ideas, such as the thrust stage. We see the pressure from Henry Breedlove to honor Oliver’s approach. As the box office “star” of the production, he would have a competing power base as against his director, and leverage to stick to the production Oliver would have pitched to him to get him to sign on. But this pressure comes after Geoffrey’s ambivalence, it isn’t what corrals him artistically.
It was very interesting to watch this episode, which included Richard’s meeting with the Minister for Culture, on the same day [August 8] that The New York Times reported on our leaderless Nat’l Endowment for the Arts, with no prospect in sight for a Chairperson to be put in place. I don’t know as much as I wish I did about Canada’s government, but, wow, is there really a Cabinet post dedicated to culture?
The upside is the obvious symbolic importance that is demonstrated by that level of prominence versus our NEA, which is only part of the political discourse when its grants become controversial or when it’s on the budget chopping block. However, at least our NEA chief cares about the portfolio, and isn’t wishing he or she was dealing with different issues. But, really, would someone in that position be so reluctant an advocate of the arts, and so seemingly unaware of the value-added aspects to government support of the arts? According to today’s Times, that’s $26 of economic activity for every $1 of government investment. Do the math, Minister!
This is the episode during which we meet Colm Feore as the branding consultant Sanjay. I love this subplot, with its lampooning of what has, within the arts community, become an almost fetishization of marketing activity as against artistic achievement. Seriously, you can go to events where the word “brand” (in its differing forms) can be heard more frequently than forms of the word “artistic.” Obviously, sustainability of arts organizations is an existential concern and it deserves attention. But so frequently it trumps any discussion of the worth of what is being marketed, to the point where one can wonder what is considered important – the potato chips, or the package they come in? The swiftness with which Richard is convinced to drink Sanjay’s Kool-Aid, after a brief exchange and a few buzzwords, is a wonderful satire of that sort of attitude.
And, in this episode we also meet Henry Breedlove. Wow, what a terrific performance by Geraint Wyn Davies. I have no idea if GWD is actually a nice guy who has simply observed other actors that are boorishly self-involved and that mask their narcissism with a smile and a skin-deep bonhomie. I have no idea if he is actually like Henry and is allowing a warts-and-all portrait that bravely reflects his own pompousness. Whichever, he delivers a remarkably-observed portrait of a certain type of denizen of the stage. And it’s one that matches Martha Burns’ willingness to show the less-appealing sides of Ellen; in this episode, her neglect of her family is obvious by the way her sister and brother-in-law react to her when they meet at the school production.
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.
Geoffrey just staring at that Macbeth script, utterly daunted, is a wonderful, absolutely honest image.
Geoffrey has dressed Oliver’s skull with a Santa cap. Somebody’s been procrastinating!
I’m dying for a designer POV on the fact that Oliver seems to have designed the entirety of his ideal Macbeth.
“I’m reviving the intern program…” “NO! That’s MORE work for me, Richard!” – Richard and Anna. Heehee.
The Minister of Culture scenes really…oof. I really hate seeing people with open disdain for their jobs holding power over people who care. It’s hard to argue with the importance of health funding, but her job is to use government to assist culture in the greater service of the town. Geez!
Every single time the old lady/witch was shown at the kiddie Macbeth production, I couldn’t restrain myself from yelling “CRONE!”
“The problem is, our audience is LITERALLY dying. If we don’t reach the youth market, we’re finished.” – Richard, and every marketing director for every theatre everywhere ever.
I haven’t said a word about Anna’s intern subplot, which is a delight here in it’s introduction. Nothing, however, is better than Maria’s reaction to the group, re: her needs for an ASM: “I need someone to take legible notes and stay late. I don’t want a wilting flower or a wannabe actor. I want the best one we’ve got.” – Maria . “Well, she came early…” – Anna
Christopher said it, but I must reiterate that Geraint Wyn Davies really does that pompous ass character line quite brilliantly. The way he’ll do something completely self-aggrandizing, and then show juuuuust enough self-awareness of it to seem like a joke…it’s a marvelous representation of a real acting type out there.