Outrageous Fortunes

by Kiko Matsing

Slings & Arrows Susan Coyne

Slings & Arrows is charming and complex and lovely. Canadians: how do they do it? (Virginia Hefferan, NY Times, 5 Aug 2005)

I had been wanting to write about this wonderful 3-season TV series from Canadian writer Susan Coyne for some time. While it originally aired on the Sundance Channel in 2003, I just saw it on DVD last year. It may have been just as well. The episodes were addictively watchable, despite the fact that the series was about the fortunes of a Shakespearean Festival in fictional New Burbage. What!?! Aren’t there enough unsavory crimes in Canada to warrant a CSI or Law And Order spin-off? This apparently distinguishes Canadian (vs. American) cinema/television, i.e., the ability to turn the ordinary into the offbeat, the everyday into the eccentric.

If Americans are in your face, Canadians are more reticent. If a lot of American movies are about wackos who turn out to share conventional values at the core, Canadian characters tend to be normal and pleasant on the surface, and keep their darker thoughts to themselves. I don’t know which I prefer, but I know the Canadians usually supply more surprises. (Roger Ebert, review of The Hanging Garden, 29 May 1998)

Everyone who reads Alice Munro already knows this. Just check out her short story Away From Her, adapted into film by Sarah Polley (who incidentally played Cordelia in season three!).

Anyway, it also doesn’t hurt that The Bard himself supplies the backbone material for the stories, as the characters’ predicaments mirror the plays in production. There are ghosts, madness, and incapacity in season one’s Hamlet; bad luck, usurpation, and more ghosts in season two’s Macbeth; delusional has-been and downsizing in season three’s King Lear. This mix of fantastic elements of Renaissance theater with the modern everyday makes for magic realism TV. Canadians: how do they do it?

One of the things I loved about the show were the barroom songs by two old codgers that opened and closed the episodes. It took some effort for me to find the compleat lyrics on the Web, so here they are:

Cheer Up, Hamlet

Cheer up, Hamlet
Chin up, Hamlet
Buck up, you melancholy Dane
So your uncle is at cad
Who murdered Dad and married Mum
That’s really no excuse to be as glum as you’ve become

So wise up, Hamlet
Rise up, Hamlet
Buck up and sing the new refrain
Your incessant monologizing fills the castle with ennui
Your antic disposition is embarrassing to see
And by the way, you sulky brat, the answer is “TO BE”!
You’re driving poor Ophelia insane

So shut up, you rogue and peasant
Grow up, it’s most unpleasant
Cheer up, you melancholy Dane

Call The Understudy

Call the understudy
I can’t go on tonight
I’m drinking with my buddy
I’m getting good and tight
Before they raise the curtain I’ll be higher than a kite
So call the understudy
I can’t go on tonight

Tell the cast and crew to break a leg (break a leg!)
Roll me out another bloody keg (bloody keg!)
I need to ease the pain that life can bring
And liquor is what will hit the spot
The play is not the thing

So call the understudy
I think it’s only right
My diction will be muddy
I’ll never find my light
Before the intermission I’ll be pissin’ on a sprite
So call the understudy
I can’t go on (he can’t go on!)
I won’t go on (he shan’t go on!)
I can’t go on tonight (damn right!)


Call me superstitious or cowardly or weak
But I’ll never play a character
Whose name one dare not speak

I’ll play Hamlet
In doublet and hose
Or either of the Dromeos
But sorry, I won’t play Mackers

I’ll play Richard the Third
With a hump and wig
Or Henry the Eighth
That selfish pig
But sorry, I don’t do Mackers

Every soul that plays this role
Risks injury or death
I’d rather sweep the bloody stage
Than ever do

So gimme King Lear
Romeo, Juliet
Doesn’t matter
I’ll play them all for free
But I’d be crackers
To take on Mackers
You see, I’m skittish about the Scottish tragedy

A Walk In The Rain

When life takes its toll
When fate treats you bad
You used to be king
And now you’ve been had
Alone with you’re fool
You think you’ll go mad
It’s nice to take a walk in the rain

A stomp through a storm
Is what I’d advise
When people you trust
Tell nothing but lies
And kidnap your friend
And gouge out his eyes
It’s nice to take a walk in the rain

You say your daughters
Are evil plotters
A pitter patter shower will keep you sane

When all has been said
And all have been slain
It’s good to take a walk in the rain
For several hours
Helps to have a howl in the rain
Without your clothes on
Nice to take a walk in the rain

I Played The Part

I should have been an actor
Such talent have I got
I’m brilliant at pretending
I’m someone that I’m not
When I was very small
They sent me off to school
To learn to read and write
And recite the golden rule
I wasn’t very clever nor the least bit smart
But I acted like a scholar and I played the part

I played the part (he played the part!)
To great acclaim (to great acclaim!)
I got an A on every paper
And I couldn’t spell my name
I played the part (he played the part!)
And that was it (he did his bit!)
And nobody knew I was a lazy little git (lazy git!)

When I was seventeen
They sent me off to war
They stuffed me in a parachute
And dropped me on the shore
I didn’t know a rifle from a cherry tart
But I acted like a soldier and I played the part

I played the part (he played the part!)
And gave ‘em heck (he gave ‘em heck!)
They put a stripe upon me elbow
And a medal ’round me neck
I played the part (he played the part!)
And that was that (he laid ‘em flat!)
Nobody knew I was a scaredy little cat (scaredy cat!)

I played the part of the loyal husband
While I kept a little cutie safely hid (safely hid!)
I played the part of the trusty employee
And I hadn’t the foggiest notion what I did (rotten kid!)
When I have come to pass
They’ll send me to my fates
At heaven’s pearly gates
That is where St. Peter waits
I’ve been a sneaky devil from the very start
But I’ll act like I’m an angel and I’ll play the part

I’ll play the part (he’ll play the part!)
And knock ‘em dead (he’ll knock ‘em dead!)
I’ll put a harp between my knees
And a halo atop my head
I’ll play the part (he’ll play the part!)
And do it well (he will excel!)
And I’ll be sent with the other actors straight to hell (straight to hell!)
And I’ll be sent with the other actors straight to hell (oh go to hell!)