As famed film stars Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen were planning to play the roles of Estragon and Vladimir in Samuel Becket's existential tragicomedy Waiting for Godot, British TV producer Sky Arts got the bright idea of following the production while also profiling the people making it happen - the crew and creative teams working at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Built in 1720 (fifty-plus years before the American Revolution, mind you), the venue boasts gorgeous settings, century old seats, a crack staff of carpenters, plumbers, and front service individuals, and smartly dressed executives who seem more interested in how they look vs. the plays they put on. With two superstars of indescribable celebrity (Star Trek, X-Men, and The Lord of the Rings among their resumes) headlining, the limited run is all but sold out. So the point of the eight part TV series Theatreland is not to focus on what's up on the stage. Instead, it wants to dissect those who make the theater their lives, and in that regard, it's both enlightening and a tad aggravating.
The eight episodes are a little over 26 minutes each in length and focus on various aspects of the Haymarket. They all have subtitles - "Bringing Down the House," "OK-Now Entertain Us," "Flushed with Success," "Is There a Spectre in the House?," "Waiting in the Wings," "Goodbye Godot," "Blonde or Brunette," and "Blood, Sweat and Magic" - and feature behind the scenes footage as well as staged interviews with almost everyone involved.
It can be a compelling journey. For the first six episodes, we are mesmerized by "the event" at the forefront. Indeed, anyone who spends time on the Internet has seen what boisterous BFFs Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen have become over the years, and here we get to see that appreciation and affection spread out over their work in one of the most difficult and demanding plays ever. Waiting for Godot is a literature major's nightmare, a graduate student thesis, and a high school student head scratcher all in one, and yet these men (in the minor sequences we are allowed to see) find the perfect approachability to the material. Along with their equally adept co-stars Simon Callow and Ronald Pickup, they argue for the Theater Royal Haymarket's expertise in presenting such difficult art. Then the Breakfast at Tiffany's stuff starts to take over and, almost immediately, you can sense the flopsweat. Sure, actors Anna Friel (hired to play Holly Golightly) and Joseph Cross are earnest and engaging, but they are obviously bound for a very short run of this oddly misguided adaptation (in fact, the play closed after four months).
Still, even Stewart and McKellen aren't the big draw here. They are part of the process (and even sit down to discuss things), but for the most part, Theatreland focuses more on their director, the two men in charge of set construction and general repairs, one of the perkiest plumber's assistants you'll ever meet, and a daydreaming usherette who believes her job at the Haymarket will (eventually) lead to a role up on the boards (one of her highlights is serving tea to Dames Maggie Smith and Joan Plowright). Some of the installments are less interesting than others (you can skip the boring ghost hunter hokum of "Spectre") and it would really be nice to hear more about Stewart's understudy, his previous career in pop music, and what it was like to step in for the man, albeit briefly, during the show's run. On the other hand, Theatreland is so enticing, so filled with back stage drama and detail that we forgive the flaws. Instead, we enjoy this fly on the wall experience about as much as the audiences watching their heroes work through Beckett's often baffling dialogue.
Presented in a TV standard 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image, the transfer of Theatreland is decent. The colors are muted across the board (must have something to do with the quality of the technology used to capture the footage) and there is a flatness to the visuals that really sticks out on a Blu-ray player upgrade. Still, there's a nice level of detail (DAMN! - McKellen looks OLD!) and an overall polish to the production. On the sound side of things, we get a nominal Dolby Digital 2.0 mix, and that's all. In case you need them, subtitles help with the more rough English accents. Finally, the only added content is an enclosed booklet with 12 pages of information on the timeline of the Theatre Haymarket, a look at the West End, profiles on the participants, and articles on the venue's spooky history and some facts about both productions. Not the greatest bonus feature, but fun nonetheless.
For those of us who once dreamed of a life on the stage, Theatreland is an eye-opener. It doesn't delve deeply into the backstage politics of putting on a play, but it does dissect the various humdrum ins and outs of being involved with the day to day operations. In fact, this eight part overview argues for less emphasis placed on the actors and the material and more on those who make the entire experience as efficient an endeavor as possible. Earning an easy Recommended rating, this is a typical British TV production - interesting, entertaining, and more insightful than many on the same subject. Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen may be the names that sell ticket, but as Theatreland argues, someone has to make sure there's somewhere to see such famous faces. The Haymarket would be hollow with such behind the scenes help.
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