There’s a scene early on in the first episode of the slyly trenchant new BBC series Staged (now streaming on Hulu), where during an awkward, semi-bored Zoom call, actors David Tennant and Michael Sheen, playing themselves, share this exchange:
Sheen: “I worry that I’m in a Hitchcock film.”
Tennant: “What do you mean?”
Sheen: “The birds are coming back to Port Talbot.”
Tennant: “That’s nice.”
Sheen: “And that large blue finch is the leader, it seems.”
Tennant: “You alright?”
Sheen: “Just adjusting. You alright?”
Tennant: “Yeaaahhh…not bad.”
Sheen: “Started spelling words backwards in your head yet?”
Tennant: “I have a bit, yeah.”
Sheen: “Have you tried Finsbury Park?”
Sheen: “It’s Krappy Rubsnif!”
Tennant: “I almost had it.”
It could not more incisively capture the crushing banality of two celebrities at an arguably creative peak attempting to brainstorm their way around the dilemma of their pandemic-cancelled play…and ending up not really saying or doing much of anything. There’s a bit of Waiting For Godot existentialism about it, and a whiff of Waiting For Guffman absurdity.
The play in question is Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, which is a classic of metatheater (if there is such a thing as a classic of metatheater), in that it’s a play about how plays are made. Its incorporation into the “plot” of Staged means there is probably now something called metametatheater—or maybe metametametatheater…it’s hard to say, since it’s only just been invented.
The episode fittingly opens with a debate about Dylan Thomas, and the Welsh language—”just all consonants and phlegm”—with both Sheen (a Welshman) and Tennant sardonically but quite lethargically reciting the famous line, “Do not go gentle into that good night.” (Surely a perfect sentiment during a deadly pandemic.) It ends with them intentionally botching the pronunciation of Cachu hwch, which translates to “mad shit” in English (and “merde folle” in French, because we felt like bringing that up for no reason)—which is precisely what follows…some pretty mad, if also rather mundane, shit.
Soon into it comes real life theater director Simon Evans, who is attempting to get said play made, starring the two marquee actors. When all three of them get on a Zoom together, the absurdity factor indeed goes up by just about 66%.
Sheen asks ostensibly earnestly, “Is there a version of this lockdown where we carry on with rehearsals?”
We then see shots of the very empty streets of London, and rolls of toilet paper “rolling” down the assembly line—surely emphasizing how unlikely it is for their play to get made any time soon.
In perhaps a snark at reality shows, Tennant’s real life wife Georgia, and Sheen’s partner Anna Lundberg both also play themselves, and only serve to ratchet up the sly/dry humor factor. The latter pops onto the screen, and worriedly queries Tennant: “Has he told you about the birds?” It’s a pithy little commentary on the creeping madness of seemingly sane people, as quarantine drags on (and on and on).
Then another priceless exchange:
Tennant: “Most writers were fairly dubious people. I mean, look at the Marquis de Sade.”
Sheen: “Look at Nabokov.”
Sheen: (animatedly) “Louis-Ferdinand Céline.”
Tennant: “Victor Hugo.”
Sheen: “Malcolm Lowry.”
Tennant: “Adolph Hitler.”
Sheen: “Yeah, he was a rapacious, litigious landlord.”
Sheen, possibly trying to impress, then re-makes the point that playwright Pirandello was a (capital F) Fascist…only to be corrected by Anna, who embarrasses him slightly by pointing out that Six Characters… was written in 1921, and Mussolini didn’t come to power until 1922. Zing.
Finally off Zoom, Tennant’s eyes seem to grow a bit crazy. He says to Georgia, “I thought Michael would be a bit more discombobulated.” “Why?,” she asks. “Because I’m a bit more discombobulated.”
And there you have it. Staged is essentially about how so many—restaurateurs, travel tour guides…actors—left unfulfilled throughout the long lockdown are in danger of going a bit bonkers because of it. It’s something of a mini-treatise on the teetering of our mental health during this harrowing new reality.
Sheen and Tennant, of course, had just come off the brilliant series Good Omens, in which they played righthanders to God and Satan respectively, who were attempting to stave off the Apocalypse. So what greater irony than ending up with a real world that seems to be tilting towards possible extinction, with nearly a million people already dead from coronavirus?
Oh, and there’s a good running bit about Hamlet.