The final episodes of Staged Season 2, Simon Evans’s hilarious lockdown comedy, air this week and, as with its first appearance last Summer, it has proved a lockdown boon. And while the show is inherently theatrical both in style and content while reflecting the screen boxes in which we have all lived for so long, Evans smartly decided to reorientate this second collection of episodes to give the interactions between characters a different energy while recasting and reconfiguring the audiences’ perspective on everything that had come before.
Originally Staged was of-the moment television created in response to and within the confines of the first national lockdown. It uses the video calling platform as its basis for communcation between a number of socially and geographically distant parties forced to reconsider their working practices as a result of the pandemic in order to progress with the development of a new piece of content. Both before and since, the boxed effect of this software has been seen across the arts as performances moved online and Staged, which was among the first to use this technique on mainstream television to underscore both its content and visual appearance, was unlike anything else before it.
Both Series 1 and 2 of Staged are inherently theatrical, with the first six episodes especially focused on the challenge for two reputed and sought after performers as well as their Director in failing to rehearse a version of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author – the nature of which the show mirrored. In terms of personnel alone, Series 1 utilised the particular nature of theatre-making, the rehearsal processes, casting and publicity along with the shape and form of Pirandello’s play as the characters slowly rebel against the authority of the Director. The deeply rooted theatre basis that ran through the first series was then enhanced with guest appearances from respected thespians Adrian Lester and Judi Dench who expanded the stage community that Evans’s script required.
Series 2 continues to utilise the (now commonplace) video box style of Internet calling yet Evans has very carefully and astutely shifted the perspective of the show to give the premise a longer life. A tried and tested formula, more of the same would have been an easy sell but this new set of eight episodes allows the story to evolve in a very different direction and takes its inspiration instead from television rather than theatre. The central conceit is that Staged is now openly acknowledged as a TV show, a phenomenon for which an American remake is mooted with alternative stars. Instantly everything we thought we had witnessed in Series 1 is cast into doubt, a fictionalised reality where scenarios and characters were deliberately ‘constructed’.
The intimate ‘fly-on-the-wall’ quality of Series 1 has been repositioned as an elaborate fabrication in which the personal highs and lows of its famous protagonists in early lockdown were merely a feint. Staged Series 2 begins from this point of acknowledgment, recasting the existence of its predecessor as primarily a commercial rather than an artistic endeavour which will now be sold internationally. In both, the false past of Series 1 and the ‘truer’ reality presented in Series 2, mean Staged is owning its existence as a form of constructed reality.
The label may seem an unusual one for a BBC show about the interaction between two highly esteemed actors, but cast aside some of the negative implications of the term and Evans has actually created a form of heightened reality in which real people using their real names and relationships play versions of themselves. The way in which these scenarios drive the plot, the adoption and exaggeration of elements of the subjects’ day-to-day experiences and responses, the limited geographical location, techniques from soap opera drama and the editorial shaping of scenes, ‘chance’ meetings and conversations all figure in Staged, and are the very definition of constructed reality in which preconceived scenarios are exaggerated and spun for entertainment purposes.
When the character of David is caught lying to Samuel L Jackson and Michael Sheen twice in Series 1: Episode 3 it may be pure farce but, equally, it is the fundamental drama basis of most constructed reality shows where characters routinely lie, cheat, sell each other out and endure explosive bar-based confrontations. And this is even more apparent in Series 2 which leans openly into its reality TV credentials using Series 1 as a product to sell that Michael and David can sabotage. Again, the audience is given fly-on-the-wall access that echoes shows like Airport and even early Big Brother that journeyed to fiction through The Office and ultimately to Staged.
In each episode of Series 2, constructed conversations with possible US Davids and Michaels take place of which only a snippet is shown to the viewer, while the apparently conflicting ‘real life’ demands of family, filming schedules and old enmities distract and dominate the leads, giving them the chance to settle old scores. That the name of the show has multiple dimensions takes on a new significance in Series 2, not just referencing ‘the stage’ which thematically defined Series 1 and the meta level ‘staging’ of a televised conversation between two friends, but the notion of staging is fundamental to the constructed reality genre that Evans introduces into his concept with these new episodes.
Staged was always a show that drew on the meta associations of actors playing versions of themselves rehearsing a play while revealing the (here) lethargic process of developing a theatre production during a time of national crisis. The play withing a play concept fed throughout Series 1 offering plenty of humour as the protagonists misbehaved, lost focus and revealed their fears about their own styles and career paths. Series 2 takes the concept to a whole new level recasting the previously “true” story and making us aware instead that we were seeing actors playing versions of themselves playing versions of themselves – eight episodes of which can only be described as uber-meta.
And if that wasn’t mind-bending enough, Series 2 twists these meta principles even further by adopting a driver in which various pairs of actors are in discussion to play the parts in the American remake which will result in two actors playing versions of two other actors playing versions of themselves. So, within the boundaries of Series 2 many of the episodes contain both Tennant and Sheen plus cameos from single guests or duos each of whom is also playing a fictionalised version of themselves and who audition to play Sheen and Tennant in the US adaptation of the show (two actors playing versions of themselves playing two other actors playing versions of themselves). It is a Scaramanga / The Lady of Shanghai hall of mirrors that will hurt your head if you think about it too much.
A much simpler meta device focuses once again on Evans as a writer that cunningly incorporates some of the Series 1 feedback to create a recurring joke about improvisation. Lots of comedy is gleaned from Sheen and Tennant’s evident dissatisfaction at being recast and a fluid insistence on how much of the script they contributed to. The character of ‘Simon’ has been relocated to America (or at least to a leafy garden doubling for LA) for Series 2 where he continually reminds his original leads that he wrote the show and is therefore free to sell the material without consultation. That the hapless Simon is now doing rather well for himself and, for the most part, controlling the conversation is a clear development from Series 1 but that doesn’t prevent Evans as the writer from concocting scenarios in which guest stars question his input into conversations performed by Tennant and Sheen. The possibility of rewrites that crops up later in the series takes us into another meta loop of external rewrites of rewrites of a show Evans wrote, but let’s not start all that again.
Does it Work?
On the whole Series 2 is very successful, moving the story along in an interesting and perhaps unexpected way as Evans turns the premise of Staged on its head while extending it and even opening the possibility of further development – if each period of lockdown results in a new series of Staged then it can’t be too bad. But there are two areas where the second season slightly overreaches itself and despite two additional episodes has a slight tendency to focus on the action away from the spiky but devoted engagement between Sheen and Tennant which is the series’ biggest draw.
The premise of Series 2 requires a lot of guest appearances from performers with a more significant American profile than the UK version of the show. However, unlike Series 1 where guests were used sparingly and purposefully, here they become increasingly distracting using the impact of their profile rather than fully serving the story. Some of these scenarios, while jokey, do become repetitive as famous face after famous face reads a portion of the Series 1 script with Tennant and / or Sheen without really moving the story along.
And in places there is a falseness in their appearance that breaks the illusion of reality that Evans has created. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost riff with one another but, despite a real life friendship, their brief appearance in Episode 3 feels uneasy and stagier than it should. Later a reel of celebrity faces from Josh Gad to Jim Parsons and Ewan McGregor play themselves to varying effect – many of these encounters are humorous but they start to feel overdone. The star appearance works best either in the concluding episode when Evans provides a final and well-staged twist or when big names play non-real characters – so we mourn the loss of Nina Sosanya’s searing agent from most of the series (now we know she is not Jo but Nina) but welcome an equally brutal Whoopi Goldberg in a successfully fictionalised role.
There is a similar pallor to the expanded story given to Georgia Tennant, Anna Lundberg and in a couple of episodes Lucy Eaton who now have their own plot points outside the male-focused American adaptation. Having their perspectives is a valuable counterbalance and they have a great screen chemistry that brings a leveling hilarity to the more emotional interaction of Sheen and Tennant as they discuss an online charity event where the women will play versions of their partners. But the audience never gets to see it and developments in the show’s concluding episode essentially saps a possible outcome for these female characters.
While Series 2 occasionally tries to do too many things, the joyous interactions between Sheen and Tennant are the heart of the show and always its most successful element when they have time alone together on screen to rant, rave and connect. The progress in their relationship in this series is charmingly managed, building on the friendly fire of the first and using the rivalries with the guest stars to disrupt their relationship as well as give them a common enemy to unite against. There is a valuable consistency of character with Series 1, so even though they now acknowledge those initial versions were fictions, the emphasis on mental health, their bruised egos and unresolved feelings of displacement caused by the inability to work add to the richness of the developing bond between them.
Staged Series 2 successfully continues the story of these characters by utilising the concepts and conventions of reality television to create a window into the characters of David and Michael while playing with the interpretive layers of its enjoyable esoteric construct. That it is dressed in the production values, filming quality and casting power of the BBC while harnessing the immediacy of the video calling platforms in our lives may distract you but Staged is part of the broadening constructed reality genre. Popular culture and the arts are not so very far apart after all.
Staged Series 1 and 2 are available on the BBC iPlayer. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.