“Some people don’t handle success very well.” – Anna
Anybody else smell the dread in the air?
Slings and Arrows, despite being a longform story, has a pretty clear three-act structure. Season 1: Hamlet. The rise of a son to take action against a usurper. Season 2: Macbeth. The usurper battles to maintain his power. Season 3: King Lear. Under the weight of hubris and power, a man falls.
“Divided Kingdom” might be a pretty spunky hour of television, but there is a sense of inevitability pervading it. We’ve spent 12 hours getting to know Richard, Geoffrey, Anna, Ellen, and everyone else, and have to a certain degree accepted how they will behave in certain circumstances.
In the wake of season 2’s finale, New Burbage has experienced massive success. Macbeth transferred to Broadway, where it played a sold-out and critically acclaimed run. Richard has managed to pay off the loan from the Ministry of Culture early. Richard and Geoffrey grace the cover of Canadian Business. The Macbeth cast is ready to come home.
Immediately, though, we see the burdens of success, most explicitly with Geoffrey. The poor guy is asked to give speech after speech, and has found himself breaking down into tears for no apparent reason. He zones out and stares listlessly during production meetings. He’s indecisive about who to cast as King Lear. Oh, and he can’t get it up. Sorry, Ellen!
(Here’s the entire episode. Enjoy!)
Richard, meanwhile, is struggling in the opposite way. He’s taking like a fish to water with the world of success, thrives in his business dinners and giving interviews, and generally being the talk of the town. He even gets a date with a fellow theatre administrator.
However, this is when things start turning for Richard, as the lady labels him “just another of those fucking numbers guys”, with no real artistic input. This is an old wound for Richard, and one we’ve seen picked at by both Holly and Sanjay in the past. Does he have the fortitude to resist his own discontentment-fueled desires?
Geoffrey and Anna certainly aren’t doing him any favors. Geoffrey, in an effort to avoid spending any unnecessary time with Darren Nichols, delegates the responsibility of artistic oversight of Darren’s musical to Richard. Richard’s always had a passion for musicals, Geoffrey hates Darren…it’s win-win, right? Everyone is happy! (cue distant thunder effects for a looming storm).
Elsewhere, Ellen returns from New York with her Manhattanite friend Barbara in tow. There’s a rapport between the two women, and Ellen’s small town discontentment seemingly makes her interested in new opportunities created by her friend and the raised profile that starring on Broadway can bring. An agent takes notice of her at the cast party, though our clueless Ellen thinks he’s flirting with her.
As with every other season of Slings, it’s fun to start playing “spot the parallelism” between the story and its Shakespearean subject matter. Either Geoffrey or Richard (or both) can be considered a king at the height of power. Barbara and Ellen are “sisters” in the theatrical sense, with Barbara being the more proactive, influencing one, a la Gonneral and Regan. Who does that leave as Cordelia? Poor Anna, who Richard didn’t even know has been showing up to work at 6am every day?
The title, “Divided Kingdom,” refers to Lear’s splitting of the rule between his unloving daughters and forsaking his loving one, a plan destined for failure. Here, it refers, I think, to Geoffrey’s end-of-episode decision to delegate artistic duties to Richard. On the surface, it makes sense for all parties, but could this be the straw that unleashes Richard’s pent-up ambitions? Maybe that’s why Richard is so frustrated throughout the hour. He spent most of last year fighting to be “one of the good guys” for the Festival, and it nearly cost him everything. Now, with more power handed to him, he worries. He was raised on cheap cars and good deals; can he keep his footing on the slippery slope of success?
Geoffrey does what he can to keep sane, including visits to his aged actor friend Charles Kingman. Kingman gives Geoffrey some insights into Lear, and here is a good time to talk about Paul Hutt. A stage legend in Canada, here we are privy to his final performance before his death, and it’s a doozy. His sampling of the Lear “storm” speech gave me goosebumps, and left a Shakespeare nerd like me nodding, smiling, and going “yes! yes! yes!” Obviously this man is Geoffrey’s Lear!
So why is everyone calling Geoffrey crazy (again) for hiring him?
…Wait, is that…is that heroin?
Caitlin Griffin responds.
Geoffrey is falling apart under the weight of his success. Both Hamlet and Macbeth have been huge hits, and he’s getting attention (and more than partial credit) for turning the Festival around into financially successful entertainment with artistic merit to boot.
However, he did it with two productions left to him by Oliver’s unexpected death, with actors he didn’t choose for himself, production design he had not started with on his own, and – of course – Oliver’s interference. Now, having ended things with Oliver, Geoffrey is left alone with the burden of expectation and the Tragedy of King Lear about to start rehearsals. No wonder he’s seeing a bedraggled Oliver playing the role of “Poor Tom” (Edgar’s disguise when he’s ousted from his home and father’s affection) crying “do de do de do de…” He knows he’s left Oliver out in the cold.
In the production meeting for Lear (which is the first time we EVER see theatrical designers outside of Theatre Sans Argent in the pilot), no one is really talking about the play – they’re talking about the effects. Between the stage violence and the storm, no one’s thinking of who these characters are or the world they’re living in. The only time the playwright is even mentioned is when one of the enthusiastic few says that fingers are more exciting than spoons for ousting the vile jelly from the eye sockets of a Gloucester dummy. Geoffrey can’t see this play in his head with all of these ideas – doesn’t that sound familiar? Mr. Lighting Design is excited to use the expensive Sierra System to create a real hurricane onstage – but to his credit, he seems willing to tone it down if Geoffrey wants it to be more of an internal storm for the deranged King. Geoffrey, still too confused to decide, asks Nahum’s opinion. In his company in Nigeria, they shook a large piece of tin – “It worked quite well.”
Productions of different sizes – small black box to giant opera house – all have their merits. But sometimes, in the immortal words of the Notorious B.I.G., “mo’ money, mo’ problems.” For Geoffrey, he’s had success with both a small, intimate Hamlet, and a well-designed and budgeted Macbeth. Now his design team has all the money they’d want to work with, and they’re losing focus. The text tells us these things – the words create that ookiness of Gloucester’s blinding and the truly terrifying maelstrom both internally and externally for Lear. As Charles asks Geoffrey as he describes the storm from Lear’s perspective, “‘Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!’ …do you hear the storm?”
And Geoffrey nods, because that is what creates it – the words telling you that this storm is happening around you. Not that it can’t be assisted by incredible design – one of the most effective storms I’ve seen for this play had lights and sound creating the effect of dark clouds gathering and distant thunder rumbling over several preceding scenes as Lear went back and forth between his two selfish daughters. Then, finally, when he was turned out of doors for the last time, lightning flashed and thunder crashed and a moment later all there was onstage was rain, mist, and Lear down center wailing to the heavens and stripping off his clothes. While the budget was a healthy size, the design was evocative of some ominous danger without being so overwhelming that the actor onstage lost the audience’s focus. It’s important that we retain our connection to Lear, because he could be us. As Charles concludes, “You can go right through the ages of man with Shakespeare and at the end he gives this great gift of Lear to anticipate your own decay.”
And then, Geoffrey, King of New Burbage, begins making decisions that will affect his entire world. Darren Nichols has returned to direct a new musical at the Festival, and because of Geoffrey’s influence he has actually become a decent director. He wants Geoffrey to work with him, but Geoffrey wants to focus on Lear. He empowers Richard artistically with the musical, dividing New Burbage between himself and these two men whose appreciation for art varies greatly from Geoffrey’s. Going with his gut – which has served him well in the past – Geoffrey also makes a strange call in bringing in Charles Kingman to play King Lear. What he doesn’t know is that Charles has huge secrets. He’s put himself in a precarious situation by thinking with his heart and not his head, and it may come back to bite him in the ass.
Incidentally, it may interest you to know that a documentary from the people who brought us the incredibly moving documentary Shakespeare Behind Bars is currently in final production for Still Dreaming, which is about former actors in a retirement home putting up a production of Midsummer like the one Charles was directing when Geoffrey found him. Check that out because it is SO good to see Shakespeare affecting groups that are not traditional actors or audiences. Students, inmates, nursing home residents, anyone can find their own meaning in Shakespeare.
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 Thoughts and Quotes:
The overblown season presentation must be Geoffrey’s idea of Hell. No wonder he breaks down in tears.
Season 3’s song is called “A Walk in the Rain.” Cute.
Richard and Geoffrey’s first scene together is full of mutual understanding, open communication, and trust. There’s only one direction this can go…
“Sibilance, sibilance, sibilance…” – Richard, allowing Mark McKinney to make a nice little allusion to a classic SNL sketch. You all remember how McKinney was a cast member for a year, right?
Geoffrey is terrible at giving interviews – short answers, hostility, and conversation-defeating, modest impulses. Note that it is indeed possible to foster a good conversation and still be modest.
“Good taste is the enemy of creativity.” – Geoffrey
“Theatre is dynamic, it is constantly in change, from performance to performance. The concept of perfection is meaningless.” – Geoffrey, in response to a review that claimed his Macbeth was “perfect”.
I’m not particularly qualified to comment on the production meeting, though it was nice to see a little bit of idea-tossing and collaboration (at least two designers had ideas for the eyeball-popping effect) between the team.
“We can make it real, but is real what you want?” – The lighting designer, re: the storm effect. I’m sure friend of the blog Andrew F. Griffin will be pleased that the LD isn’t just interested in playing with his “Sierra System” toy.
A World Music Festival is just the sort of weird alternative program that one would expect to see between shows at New Burbage.
“Is it William Shatner?” “What’s to decide; he’s Captain Kirk!” – Richard, getting excited about potential Lear candidates.
“You are reacting in the single worst possible way a woman could react to this exact situation!” – Geoffrey, following Ellen’s fretting about his “failure to perform” in bed.
“Sometimes it’s best to work through the tears…that’s what I do.” – Poor Anna.
“I must say, I’ve fallen in love with the musical genre. It’s the art form of the common man. If you want to communicate something to the Proletariate, cover it in sequins and make it sing! It’s noisy, vulgar, and utterly meaningless. I love it.” – Darren Nichols*
* – Ok folks, diatribe time! Now I know that Slings has put this sentiment into the mouth of celebrated hack Darren Nichols, but I often can’t help but feel that the voice of Slings and Arrows itself has a disdain for musical theatre. You wouldn’t think it, with Bob Martin being the creator of The Drowsy Chaperone and all, but still, musical theatre is NOT going to be getting a better shake as this season goes.
Without spoiling anything else ahead…there is a general theme of people making huge mistakes that appear to be good choices this hour. A fitting theme for a Lear-focused season.
“Tell me about the storm.” – Geoffrey
“It’s Lear…he makes the connection between his own suffering and everyone else’s. He loses his mind and finds his heart. You can go through the ‘ages of man’ with Shakespeare and then at the end he gives you this enormous gift of Lear, to anticipate your own decay.” – Charles. Mmmm.
“I’m a big boy. I’m a big boy I can handle it. I’m a big boy.” – Kenneth, showing the dichotomy between acceptance and pettiness that races through the head of every actor rejected for a role.
“Who the hell is Richard Smith-Jones?!” – Richard, sobbing. We’ll spend a lot of time figuring that out this year.