A festival of double entendres

Toby Frow's Taming of the Shrew hits the spot.

The Taming of the Shrew is not, perhaps, the easiest of Shakespeare’s comedies to love. Rather like dealing with a friend’s ill-favoured and difficult child, one struggles to respond with the unstinting delight that one knows is expected.

Toby Frow’s production at the Globe goes a long way towards jollying us out of our 21st-century humours, however, through the medium of horseplay and general hijinks. We’re invited to leapfrog over the bitter lesson at the heart of the play, the stone in the peach - namely, that a woman must be broken into submission through starvation, sleep deprivation and other torture methods (or “enhanced interrogation techniques”).

Katharina the “shrew” is at once the men’s quarry and their soon-to-be domesticated pet, a “household Kate”. She’s a beast of burden (to be boarded, and to bear children) and a tamed bird. Oh, and a dog. Never has a woman been saddled with so many animal analogues as our Kate. The project is clear: this wildcat must be tamed. For her own good, you understand.

Such is the production’s success, though, that the house actually cheers her eventual submission, responding with some enthusiasm to shrew-tamer Petruchio’s approving “why, there’s a wench!” Frow’s prevailing mood of hilarity helps, and he has taken the decision to stick to seventeenth century dress code so that we might feel distanced, in an “another country” sort of way. Though bit of hose and damask is not necessarily going to neutralize lines like “Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,/Thy head, thy sovereign...” or indeed Kate’s sisterly advice to the women: “place your hands below your husband's foot”.

Nor does the framing device - in this case a boozy, chavvy Engerland supporter in crackling polyester, who takes a casual pee on stage - serve to truly remove us from the make-believe of the play. This deluded lordling melts away, to re-emerge as Petruchio. The parallels are explicit: they are buddied up in their delusions, but it hardly removes the sting from Petruchio’s brutal treatment of Katharina.

Still it’s really hard to dislike Toby Frow’s gag-filled bawdy. Samantha Spiro is a spitting firecracker as the eponymous shrew. She breaks down doors, punches groundlings and beats the crap out of her sister, each act of violence accompanied by the scream of a banshee. She’s a pocket, pungent contrast to her sibling (Sarah MacRae), the willowy, insufferable Bianca. Simon Paisley-Day, as Petruchio, is wildly unbuttoned. He rocks up to his nuptials wearing nothing but a jumbo codpiece and extravagantly ill-matched boots.

The whole show is a festival of double entendres and the cast juice words like “instruments” and “fingering” for all they are worth. It’s also not above some breezy anachronisms - "Johnny B. Goode" is strummed on the lute - and the odd textual extra (off-stage noises of Katharina seemingly being brought to the brink of orgasm, for example). It plays fast-and-loose with the text: whole speeches are gunned through at top speed for comic effect; when Petruchio makes various classical references, to Socrates’ Xanthe and the like, the joke is not that we know these allusions, but that we don’t.

In this show, we’re in it for the lols.

Whether it’s a piece of harmless folklore, some sportive roleplay (after all, everyone else in the play is faking it) or a touch of the Stockholm syndrome, Spiro’s venomous Katharina is apparently beaten into a missus from Stepford, her final speech seemingly unlimned by irony. Her percussive shrieks deepen and sweeten to rich cello tones as she hymns the surrendered wife. Kate is declawed; the wildcat turns pussycat.

And yet the crowd roars. Maybe we Elizabethans are not as New as we’d like to think.

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in the 1973 film of The Taming of the Shrew (Getty Images)
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.