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.

Harry Styles. Photo: Getty
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How podcasts are reviving the excitement of listening to the pop charts

Unbreak My Chart and Song Exploder are two music programmes that provide nostalgia and innovation in equal measure.

“The world as we know it is over. The apo­calypse is nigh, and he is risen.” Although these words came through my headphones over the Easter weekend, they had very little to do with Jesus Christ. Fraser McAlpine, who with Laura Snapes hosts the new pop music podcast Unbreak My Chart, was talking about a very different kind of messiah: Harry Styles, formerly of the boy band One Direction, who has arrived with his debut solo single just in time to save the British charts from becoming an eternal playlist of Ed Sheeran’s back-catalogue.

Unbreak My Chart is based on a somewhat nostalgic premise. It claims to be “the podcast that tapes the Top Ten and then talks about it at school the next day”. For those of us who used to do just that, this show takes us straight back to Sunday afternoons, squatting on the floor with a cassette player, finger hovering over the Record button as that tell-tale jingle teased the announcement of a new number one.

As pop critics, Snapes and McAlpine have plenty of background information and anecdotes to augment their rundown of the week’s chart. If only all playground debates about music had been so well informed. They also move the show beyond a mere list, debating the merits of including figures for music streamed online as well as physical and digital sales in the chart (this innovation is partly responsible for what they call “the Sheeran singularity” of recent weeks). The hosts also discuss charts from other countries such as Australia and Brazil.

Podcasts are injecting much-needed innovation into music broadcasting. Away from the scheduled airwaves of old-style radio, new formats are emerging. In the US, for instance, Song Exploder, which has just passed its hundredth episode, invites artists to “explode” a single piece of their own music, taking apart the layers of vocal soundtrack, instrumentation and beats to show the creative process behind it all. The calm tones of the show’s host, Hrishikesh Hirway, and its high production values help to make it a very intimate listening experience. For a few minutes, it is possible to believe that the guests – Solange, Norah Jones, U2, Iggy Pop, Carly Rae Jepsen et al – are talking and singing only for you. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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