Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Film

The Gatekeepers. Selected cinemas, nationwide. Released 12 April.

The Gatekeepers is an intimate, interview-style documentary featuring six former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s secret service agency. Directed by Dror Moreh, it focuses on the personal experiences of men at the forefront of the Six Day War. The remarkable openness of the participating interviewees has received a great deal of interest. Discussing the successes and mistakes of their time during the Occupation, they shed light on the wider controversy surrounding the war.

Opera

The English National Opera: The Sunken Garden. Barbican Centre, London EC2Y 8DS. 12 – 20 April.

Tonight, The Barbican will host the world premiere of The Sunken Garden. Directed by composer and director Michel van der Aa, with a libretto written by author David Mitchell, whose novel Cloud Atlas was shortlisted for the Booker prize, The Sunken Garden includes both 2D and 3D film. Focusing on the disappearance of a software engineer and the people who try to find him, it describes itself as an all new “occult mystery” film-opera.

Exhibition

Tell Me Whom You Haunt: Marcel Duchamp and the Contemporary Readymade. Blain Southern Gallery, Hanover Square, London W1S 1BP1. April – 18 May.

Tell Me Whom You Haunt places ten leading contemporary artists in dialogue with existing pieces by Marcel Duchamp, to explore the idea that found or ‘readymade’ objects lose their previous signification when re-contextualised. The exhibition includes responses from contemporary artists such as Olaf Nicolai, Robert Kusmirowski and Nasan Tur, all of whom play with the idea of ‘hauntings’ and the ways in which memory manifests itself.

Concert

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Colston Hall, Bristol, BS1 5AR. Thurs 18 April.

On Thursday, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra will perform a wordless ‘night at the opera’, conducted by Andrew Litton, with Vadim Gluzman as lead violinist. It will include pieces from Korngold, Bruch, Wagner and R Strauss. To supplement this exciting concert, Bristol ensemble conductor Jonathan James will be giving a talk on Saturday 13th April. Discussing the inferences and themes behind each piece, he will historically and socially contextualise the music to instil a new resonance to the performance. His talk will also be at Colston Hall.

Theatre

Fences. Cambridge Arts Theatre, Cambridge CB2 3PJ. 15 – 20 April.

August Wilson's 1987 drama Fences is arguably one of the most famous American plays of the 20th century.  Set in 1957, between the Korean and Vietnam wars, it follows the life of Troy Maxson – played by Lenny Henry, a once gifted athlete whose job as a garbage collector now leaves him resentful and embittered. This new version, directed by Paulette Randall, has received high praise from critics including Lyn Gardner. Writing in the Guardian, she describes the portrayal of Maxson as “so vivid that you can't help being gripped by this story of a man who may have thrived, but who is fenced in by the era into which he was born.”    

Director of The Gatekeepers, Dror Moreh, at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Photo: Larry Busacca/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.