“A Mirror Up To Nature” (season 1, episode 5; originally aired 12/1/2003)
In which Geoffrey puts on a show…
The thing that took Slings And Arrows from a show I really loved to one of my favorite shows of all time arrives in this episode. It’s not the sort of thing everybody would enjoy, nor is it the sort of thing that any old show could do. But once Geoffrey gets the cast of Hamlet up on its feet and runs through the decisions he’ll have to make—at whiplash speed, seemingly—the show becomes something else entirely for me. The question about this show has always been, “How is there going to be a show about a theatre festival?” but Slings finds a unique problem for each production in every season, and the more the show delves into the rehearsal process, the more it finds its heart.
It may not seem like endlessly rehearsing the same show over and over would make for interesting drama, but Slings understands that what’s great about the rehearsal process is that it’s a continual unfolding, with new answers to unexpected questions with every week. The center of this episode comes when Geoffrey gets Jack to go up on stage and deliver the “To be or not to be” soliloquy, and the conflict here is whether he can get a guy to make a decision and say some words. But it’s like everything in the show hinges on that moment, because the series has done such a wonderful job of having so much riding on Hamlet’s success. And then it’s all boiled down to a moment when a movie star has to overcome his fears to speak words that will inevitably leave him wanting in comparison to others who’ve spoken them before, at least in the minds of many audience members.
What’s great here is the way the show trusts its audience to follow a thought process (and also to know a little bit about Shakespeare). There are other people sequestered in the room as Hamlet delivers the speech. Geoffrey wants to know if Jack believes that Hamlet knows those people are there—thus making the soliloquy a performance for a very specific audience—or if he doesn’t—thus making it a performance for Hamlet himself and the paying customers out in the seats. What Geoffrey’s doing here is getting both Jack and the audience to stop thinking about how famous the speech is, or how many great actors have delivered it, and just start thinking about the words, about the mechanics. Every play can be boiled down to words on a page, arranged in a certain way, and what Geoffrey wants to do is make Jack realize that on some level, Hamlet is like one of the action blockbusters he might star in in his other career. By no longer thinking about what the speech has become, Jack can start digging into the fact that Hamlet, like every other character he’s played, has a motivation and goals and stuff going on beyond being such a famous role. It’s a neat bit of sleight of hand. And once he starts speaking, Geoffrey can wander the stage in his mind, seeing how this all might fit together in theory. It’s great fun, and it speaks to something this series does better than I think any other show in the same basic milieu.
Slings And Arrows is really terrific at portraying the creative process, at showing how a group can come together to present a show like Hamlet less as something that happens magically all at once and more as a series of negotiated compromises led by a strong director. “A Mirror Up To Nature” is the first full flowering of the show’s exploration of this process, as Geoffrey slowly starts to figure out what his Hamlet will look like, instead of Oliver’s or Darren’s version of the show. And because he has no money, Geoffrey’s version is going to necessarily be fairly stripped down, with essentially no set (maybe some chairs) and costume pieces that will suggest the characters, more than thoroughly depict them. Geoffrey wants to invite anachronisms, invite the audience to re-engage with the play on a level that makes said audience reconsider what this means. Sure, the idea’s been done before—in a production starring Richard Burton—but that just means it can work.
First, of course, Geoffrey has to get through all of the hurdles in his way. Jack’s refusing to perform the text, instead just speaking his own version of things. Ellen has mostly checked out, unable to play opposite someone practicing some version of “the Method.” Richard and Holly are planning their coup off to the side, with Richard completely throwing out the very solid season of plays Geoffrey suggests for the coming year. (“For dessert, Blithe Spirit!) He keeps yelling at Oliver during rehearsals, freaking everybody out. He doesn’t have any money. And Claire falls from the stage, leaving her unable to perform Ophelia, thrusting Kate into the role with very little time left before the show launches.
The show chalks much of this up to Oliver, who acts almost as Geoffrey’s creative conscience in some scenes (as when he talks out the minimal set idea with him), then claims to be carrying out Geoffrey’s unspoken wishes in others (as when he takes credit for Claire’s injuries). This is one of the secrets to the series’ ability to turn the rehearsal process into effective drama. With Oliver around, the show is able to give Geoffrey someone to bounce off of, somebody to toss ideas at and see if they stick. And because Oliver can give as good as he gets, he also gives us a chance to see how the creative process works. It effectively creates an external version of the internal struggles all creative types go through, and it works supremely well. The biggest problem any show about creative people has is figuring out a way to depict that struggle. By making it a literal discussion, Slings And Arrows finds an elegant solution to the problem.
“Mirror” isn’t the show’s best episode. In a lot of ways, it feels slightly rushed, with some patched-in ADR gluing together the cut from Jack’s “To be or not to be” and the night of dress rehearsal, which is actually just over a week later. The episode rushes past plot points, then unnaturally extends others (like the fate of Geoffrey’s schedule, which plays out in the background, even though weeks are passing in the main plot), and it just generally feels like all involved got to this episode and realized they were only one away from the season finale. Things happen quickly and occasionally inconsistently, and there are places where the show is barely able to hold on to what it’s trying to do. In addition, the Richard and Holly plot continues to be a touch broad, particularly when Holly kills May at the end, via showing her a diorama of “Shakespeareville.” (It’s a place for middle-income families to explore the theatre while it remains accessible!)
Yet, as with Geoffrey taking every single thing that happens and making it into a strength, the episode somehow consumes its flaws and becomes better for them. This is one of those things that happens sometimes, where something isn’t perfect, and you realize that on an intellectual level, but something about the imperfections makes it even more endearing. The rush that takes up the last half of this episode is so pell-mell and constantly forward-moving that I find it hard to get too worked up about the things I realize don’t really work. It’s as if all involved decided to simply grit their teeth and just get through, and it works far better than it has any right to, honestly.
That hurried rush also helps the show create that sense of these things happening because they’re compelled by forces of nature that we talked about last week. Jack and Kate’s relationship behaves like that of two people who’ve been hooking up for a while, because by the end of the episode, they have been hooking up for a while. This show sometimes functions best when it’s almost giddy, and the way that this episode compresses so much time into 45 minutes makes that giddiness feel extra potent. When Kate smiles and laughs at Jack offstage before the dress rehearsal, there’s nothing quite like it. Even if the speed and pacing gloss over some stuff that might have been done better, it doesn’t matter in the face of everything those elements offer to the show that wouldn’t otherwise be there.
It all ends on a big cliffhanger, of course. Jack takes off after the dress rehearsal (which seems to have been pretty bad), and the show opens on the next day, thanks to Richard cannibalizing the preview period for corporate events. Even Kate isn’t able to stop him. Holly gives May the second heart attack to close out the episode (and she’s so business-like about it that it becomes weirdly funny), and the whole thing gains a kind of fizzy gravitas to head into the next episode, the finale. “A Mirror Up To Nature” isn’t the series’ finest hour, but it’s so heedless, so occasionally beautiful, and so damn fun that it just doesn’t matter. We’re building to something, and this is the point in that story where things have to fall apart. That the show makes the tear-down process into such a good time is what makes everything work.
- I keep thinking I’m going to get a week to do a big article about Ellen, but she continues to be less important to the proceedings than I remembered her being. Perhaps she gets more to do in the upcoming seasons, because she’s mostly been in the background for this one.
- Though some of the people involved in this show created the Tony-winning musical The Drowsy Chaperone, the show itself has a weird antipathy toward musical theatre. That said, I suspect a lot of that just stems from the show having a weird antipathy toward Richard, more than anything.
- Geoffrey wants his coffee black. “With sugar and cream?” asks Anna. “Yes. Black,” he says.
- I had forgotten just how on edge Geoffrey seems this season. If the season had ended with him completely losing it, it would have been wholly appropriate.
- Oh, one nice Ellen moment comes when Richard tries to get her to turn on Geoffrey, and she refuses to because he’s her director.
- Some of the festival’s subscribers might not even know Shakespeare wrote Pericles, Richard says. Like Richard, of course. (And I do love the way the show makes you almost sympathize with Richard when Geoffrey treats him like an idiot.)
- Rachel McAdams’ little moment where she answers the phone after Jack hands it to her is just a nicely observed little bit of business. Of course she’d take a moment to rein herself in.
Next week: The show must go on, and we reach the first-season finale.