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.

Photo: Getty
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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.