Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project
Learn more about Voltaire!The Sanders Portrait

Slings & Arrows Reviews and Reception

Slings & Arrows Spotlight Introduction

Slings & Arrows Interviews

Slings & Arrows Multimedia

Slings & Arrows Teachers' Guides

CASP database entries:

Season I

Season II
Season III

newspaper mastheads

Reception of Slings & Arrows is the central concern of the Canadian Adaptation of Shakespeare Project (CASP). While we have spent much time exploring the intention of the producers, writers, and actors, it is the response of the audience that should offer some insight into the influence that a high-quality television series about Canadian Shakespeare has on the public imagination.  The problem, however, is that there has been little (or no?) formal research into reception. While a system of ratings is in place at major networks, Slings & Arrows has been subject to no such regular review. The only formal public response to this onstage/backstage television drama has been heard through newspaper columns and magazine reviews. 

Critical reception in Canada and in the US has been overwhelmingly united in recognizing Slings & Arrows as a high-quality television production. However, what stands out as the central theme of most (if not all) reviews on both sides of the border is that Sling & Arrows is Canadian. In the US, this Canadian television drama has been received as a great discovery in a market saturated with reality television and long running crime dramas. In Canada, the quality of being Canadian provoked an initial hesitation. National Post theatre critic Scott Feschuk deftly mirrors this pause in his description of Slings & Arrows as “cleverly directed, brilliantly performed … and Canadian” (Feschuk 2003). The syntax of this phrase forces the reader to hesitate before reading that the show is Canadian. This construction allows Feschuk to imply that while the show is well directed and has a talented cast, the real point of interest is that these two qualities can be housed in a Canadian television drama. While a recent Canadian television drama like Da Vinci's Inquest (CBC) is received all around as good television there is a general position amongst Canadian viewers that homegrown television is sub par. Many of us cringe to think of the next CBC or CTV drama, and many of us feel guilty that we would rather watch 24 than Train 48 (CTV). This feeling may be due to the fact that in one sense Canadians are forced to watch Canadian-made programming. Content on television in Canada is regulated so that 60 percent of the broadcast schedule will be Canadian. The quality of this programming is not as essential as the fact that it exists, ensuring Canadians continue to have a voice among the massive flow of programming from the US. The result of this regulation can be either the production of low quality Canadian television drama that meets the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s (CRTC) quota or a necessary investment in infrastructure that results in high quality programming like Sling & Arrows. In the press release from season one of Slings & Arrows the producers give credit to the Canadian Television Fund, the Government of Canada, the Canadian Cable Industry, and Telefilm Canada. This list of partners speaks to the integration producers must manage to bring high-quality production to screen. Successful partnerships of this kind are rare and are thus met with celebration, as we find in Canadian reviews of Slings & Arrows.

US critics, of course, are not faced with the whole body of Canadian television production but only with a small segment that is exported to the United States. This small trickle of Canadian content is what accounts for the majority of American television critics who see Slings & Arrows as a new addition to what has come to be the expectation of particularly ‘Canadian’ offerings.  Here the term ‘Canadian’ takes on more meaning than simple geography. ‘Canadian’ in this sense is best understood as an outlook, disposition, or tone that differs from the tone of American programming. Virginia Heffernan uses the term ‘Canadian’ in a New York Times television review in the following context: “Slings & Arrows is charming and complex and lovely. Canadians, how do they do it?” As much as Heffernan celebrates Slings and its Canadian creators in this article, the praise is also a subtle indictment of American programming. In CNN.com’s coverage of the series debut, Alynda Wheat is concerned that viewers may dismiss the series as being too Canadian. While an explanation of ‘Canadian’ is not given the expectation is that Slings might be too “charming and complex and lovely.” The disagreement between these two receptions may point to the theatre critic’s understanding of their own audience more than it reveals public reception of Slings & Arrows

The role of the arts critic is to offer a regular account of events that they feel may (or should) be of interest to their public readership. The persona of the critic is often central to the review and often this personality is what readers remember. In a National Post article dated November 4, 2003, the expectation of television critic Scott Feschuk is that his readership may be skeptical of a television drama about Shakespearean theatre. On the other hand Globe and Mail television critic John Doyle gives us the impression that his readers will appreciate the concept as he writes on November 3, 2003, that “the idea is marvelous: an arch send-up of the bitchiness of the theatre with some romantic comedy thrown in. Plus, there is some tart commentary on the tension between art and commerce. Add an opportunity to play with themes from Hamlet and it all sounds juicy.”  Reception here is thus complicated or driven by what the critic expects of their reader. Doyle assumes his audience will share an interest in the politics of arts production and in a television adaptation of Hamlet. Feschuk is concerned how his readers will react to television about theatre but is quickly won over and hopes to win over his readers by describing Slings & Arrows as “an indelible tribute to the power of the language and the intoxicating properties of live performance.” Television reviews, and any arts criticism, must be sensitive to readership, so in considering reviews of Slings & Arrows as a kind of public reception we may take these reviews as a prediction of public response. How do viewers respond to a television program that has no ratings system? Ask the arts critic.

The writers of Slings & Arrows have included in their cast of eccentric characters arts critic Basil Thume whose journalistic integrity is corrupted by his love of or dependence on the New Burbage Festival of Shakespearean Theatre. Played by Canadian comedian Sean Cullen, this parody of the embedded journalist is celebrated by actual theatre critics, some of whom wonder if they are the source of the character.  A strange admission to make considering that Basil’s critical response is limited by his intimacy with those he must be critical of. Disregarding the growing failures of Oliver Welles’ direction at New Burbage, Basil promises good reviews. It is hard to say what motivates Basil to make such a commitment; either he so invested in praising this theatre through his reviews that his own success depends on New Burbage, or he has a greater loyalty to New Burbage than to his readers. Which ever reason is closer to the intention of Slings creators, similar accusations have been made with regard to arts critics associated with the Stratford Festival.

The parallels between what Slings & Arrows offers as fiction and what occurs in Canadian theatre was further blurred on August 26th, 2005 as the Toronto Star published a theatre review entitled “If only all the characters had died.” This review, credited to the once fictional Basil Thume, brilliantly reveals an exchange taking place between the characters that populate Slings & Arrows and those who populate the Canadian theatre landscape. Does the satirical review of actual independent theatre by a fictional corporate theatre hack reveal a growing distance between these spaces? If Slings & Arrows is in fact conceived as a “state of the union address,” hoping to offer an inside view of the complexity of Canadian artistic practice, the appearance of the Basil Thume review in the Toronto Star may indicate a recognition that through fiction of New Burbage, valuable insight can be accessed.

Ben Walsh

Slings & Arrows Spotlight Introduction

Slings & Arrows Interviews

Slings & Arrows Multimedia

Slings & Arrows Teachers' Guides

CASP database entries:

Season I

Season II
Season III

 


Disclaimer: This site has been designed with only non-commercial, academic uses in mind. Although every effort has been made to secure permission for materials uploaded on the CASP site, in some circumstances we have been unable to locate copyright holders. Links may be made to our site but under no conditions are the texts and images to be copied and mounted onto another site server. Researchers using the site should accredit it following standard MLA guidelines on how to do so. Correct citation of information from the site is as follows:

Fischlin, Daniel. Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project. University of Guelph. 2004. <http://www.canadianshakespeares.ca>.


Online Anthology | Spotlight | Database | Interviews | Bibliography | Essays | Multimedia | Links | About CASP | Shakespeare News |Learning Commons