Shakespeare’s supermarket sweep

An imaginative troupe of actors takes over (where else?) Sainsbury’s for the afternoon.

Cultural snobs might think that Lewisham and Shakespeare make queer bedfellows: more a case of what blighter through yonder window breaks. But here I am, in an overlit and underheated Sainsbury's in south London, waiting for the Bard's appearance.

It's Sunday afternoon, the store thrums with herds of shoppers, and the Tannoy periodically broadcasts its workaday requests, summoning the supervisor to till number five and so on. Unexpectedly this shifts to Shakespeare's 23rd sonnet, and we hear: "As an imperfect actor on the stage/Who with his fear is put besides his part . . ." followed by the announcement that the Supermarket Shakespeare actors will be assembling in the fresh veg section.

So we troop to this -- ahem -- sceptred aisle, to find what appear to be several members of staff and some plain-clothes types, each holding five items or less aloft and inviting us to follow their journey round the store.

This is Teatro Vivo in action. Parks, police stations, HMV and now Sainsbury's have all played host to their particular brand of up close and personal theatre. Well, up close, at least, as proximity proves to be no guarantee of intimacy: our first character, Colin the soap-star-turned-shelf-stacker, had a rather unengrossing narrative, enlivened only by a customer asking him if he knew where the lardons were.

In fact, the show doesn't exactly do what it says on the tin, and the connection with Shakespeare is minimal -- no unkindest cut of all in the deli section, then. This is Shakespeare-lite, in which Sonnet 23 is merely the starting point to six stories, each loosely dealing with the disconnect between what we feel and our ability to express it.

The experience is repeated three times, so shoppers can track a different performer each time, or even switch allegiance as they interact during a tour. The spectacle is free, and at any one time there can be just one shopper following a performer, or a large group, and people peel off, join in or shout comments along the way. The characters talk to us and ask for advice.

Things hot up on our second outing, when we follow Mari the cheerleader (Laura Hooper). We are welcomed as fellow "Sparkles" with high-fives and West Coast whoops and then given a tour round the healthy eating area and her neuroses.

Delightful muddle

And here is where it gets interesting: when Mari breaks down in meat, fish and poultry, she is so physically close that we are co-opted into the drama and feel compelled to act. (At another show a little boy gave one of the actors a consoling hug.) It's this delightful muddle of the rules of theatrical engagement that makes this promenade so engaging.

The spirit of revelry clearly affects the bona fide Sainsbury's employees, two of whom join our group, puckishly wearing the same name on their badges. Abdul and Abdul are then deftly looped into the show.

The repetition of events allows us the pleasure and privilege of rewinding the scene and playing it again from another perspective. Gary the bolshy Brummie (Stavros Dimitrinki), who had given our own dear cheerleader such a hard time in baby products, proves to have his own sad reasons for kicking off, and we think of him entirely differently second time around.

There is an intriguing hierarchy of knowledge among spectators, from those who know nothing of the set-up, and merely see an unremarkable conversation, to those who have shadowed several performers. Moreover, we can never know the play in its entirety, as there's no opportunity to follow all six actors.

This is gentle guerrilla drama that takes place in and takes on a theatre of consumption, and briefly gets us out of our acquisitive trance and into acknowledging each other. It's an act of generosity, and a quiet reminder that the milk of human kindness does not reside in the dairy section.

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The Autumn Statement proved it – we need a real alternative to austerity, now

Theresa May’s Tories have missed their chance to rescue the British economy.

After six wasted years of failed Conservative austerity measures, Philip Hammond had the opportunity last month in the Autumn Statement to change course and put in place the economic policies that would deliver greater prosperity, and make sure it was fairly shared.

Instead, he chose to continue with cuts to public services and in-work benefits while failing to deliver the scale of investment needed to secure future prosperity. The sense of betrayal is palpable.

The headline figures are grim. An analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that real wages will not recover their 2008 levels even after 2020. The Tories are overseeing a lost decade in earnings that is, in the words Paul Johnson, the director of the IFS, “dreadful” and unprecedented in modern British history.

Meanwhile, the Treasury’s own analysis shows the cuts falling hardest on the poorest 30 per cent of the population. The Office for Budget Responsibility has reported that it expects a £122bn worsening in the public finances over the next five years. Of this, less than half – £59bn – is due to the Tories’ shambolic handling of Brexit. Most of the rest is thanks to their mishandling of the domestic economy.

 

Time to invest

The Tories may think that those people who are “just about managing” are an electoral demographic, but for Labour they are our friends, neighbours and the people we represent. People in all walks of life needed something better from this government, but the Autumn Statement was a betrayal of the hopes that they tried to raise beforehand.

Because the Tories cut when they should have invested, we now have a fundamentally weak economy that is unprepared for the challenges of Brexit. Low investment has meant that instead of installing new machinery, or building the new infrastructure that would support productive high-wage jobs, we have an economy that is more and more dependent on low-productivity, low-paid work. Every hour worked in the US, Germany or France produces on average a third more than an hour of work here.

Labour has different priorities. We will deliver the necessary investment in infrastructure and research funding, and back it up with an industrial strategy that can sustain well-paid, secure jobs in the industries of the future such as renewables. We will fight for Britain’s continued tariff-free access to the single market. We will reverse the tax giveaways to the mega-rich and the giant companies, instead using the money to make sure the NHS and our education system are properly funded. In 2020 we will introduce a real living wage, expected to be £10 an hour, to make sure every job pays a wage you can actually live on. And we will rebuild and transform our economy so no one and no community is left behind.

 

May’s missing alternative

This week, the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, gave an important speech in which he hit the proverbial nail on the head. He was completely right to point out that societies need to redistribute the gains from trade and technology, and to educate and empower their citizens. We are going through a lost decade of earnings growth, as Carney highlights, and the crisis of productivity will not be solved without major government investment, backed up by an industrial strategy that can deliver growth.

Labour in government is committed to tackling the challenges of rising inequality, low wage growth, and driving up Britain’s productivity growth. But it is becoming clearer each day since Theresa May became Prime Minister that she, like her predecessor, has no credible solutions to the challenges our economy faces.

 

Crisis in Italy

The Italian people have decisively rejected the changes to their constitution proposed by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, with nearly 60 per cent voting No. The Italian economy has not grown for close to two decades. A succession of governments has attempted to introduce free-market policies, including slashing pensions and undermining rights at work, but these have had little impact.

Renzi wanted extra powers to push through more free-market reforms, but he has now resigned after encountering opposition from across the Italian political spectrum. The absence of growth has left Italian banks with €360bn of loans that are not being repaid. Usually, these debts would be written off, but Italian banks lack the reserves to be able to absorb the losses. They need outside assistance to survive.

 

Bail in or bail out

The oldest bank in the world, Monte dei Paschi di Siena, needs €5bn before the end of the year if it is to avoid collapse. Renzi had arranged a financing deal but this is now under threat. Under new EU rules, governments are not allowed to bail out banks, like in the 2008 crisis. This is intended to protect taxpayers. Instead, bank investors are supposed to take a loss through a “bail-in”.

Unusually, however, Italian bank investors are not only big financial institutions such as insurance companies, but ordinary households. One-third of all Italian bank bonds are held by households, so a bail-in would hit them hard. And should Italy’s banks fail, the danger is that investors will pull money out of banks across Europe, causing further failures. British banks have been reducing their investments in Italy, but concerned UK regulators have asked recently for details of their exposure.

John McDonnell is the shadow chancellor


John McDonnell is Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington and has been shadow chancellor since September 2015. 

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump