August 2014. I’m sitting next to Rachel Mars as Chris Goode performs a tribute to the folk singer Pete Seeger. By his own confession, Chris can’t sing, in the prescribed sense of holding a tune with precision, but he can sing the way any human might, opening his mouth and letting sound spill out, unguarded. The fragility of his voice, the honesty of its use, makes me and Rachel cry.
Seeger used his voice – a sinewy instrument, its sound poised between the twang of a banjo string and the wheeze of an accordion – as a clarion, whether rallying an audience to sing along (and so recognise their communion with each other) or to join in the necessary work to create a more equitable society. He supported and sang for working people, at a time when “working people” wasn’t central to the debasement of language, a misappropriated phrase wielded as a weapon by politicians whose greatest concern in life isn’t working (-class) people but their own power.
Rachel was seven when a teacher told her she couldn’t sing; I was 14 when my mum asked who told me I could. Neither of us have sung much within earshot of others since. Until, that is, 2014, when Rachel started a pop-up choir. Its name is Sing It! Spirit of Envy, and wherever it travels it gathers to its heart anyone who wants to participate, regardless of “ability”. Together they sing songs of covetousness and jealousy, words provided by people confessing their envy of people who can pay their rent, or have good hair, or don’t have depression, or actually are Destiny’s Child. There’s a video on Rachel’s website of its debut performance at Buzzcut, and embedded within it is a quote from Boris Johnson that is typical of the obnoxious privilege he embodies: “Some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity.” A sentence I want to carve up with chainsaws.
June 2015. I’m sitting next to Rachel Mars in a rehearsal room with Chris Goode and Rhiannon Armstrong and two other musicians. It’s a room full of song, politics, and sadness, because the Tories won the election last month and none of us wants the divisive, accusatory, hypocritical society they are shaping. We are trying to imagine travelling the country as a ramshackle band, Seeger as our totem, to talk with people about their communities: what they were, what they are, what they might be. We are struggling with the fact that a large proportion of the people we encounter might well have voted for UKIP, and espouse views we would consider racist, or homophobic, or misogynist. We have no idea what’s coming next, can’t see the freight train that’s about to hit us.
September 2015. I’m sitting in the main studio in Ovalhouse watching Rachel Mars and Greg Wohead perform Story #1. It’s horrible. Brilliant, scintillating, guillotine catching the sunlight as it falls dazzling, but also horrible. The violence of it, rendered in such needlepoint detail; none of it is shown, and so it’s seen all the more vividly in the mind.
June 2016. I’m watching Louise Mothersole and Rebecca Biscuit perform their latest work as Shit Theatre, Letters To Windsor House, and I’m tied up in knots, because it cuts to the heart of everything that’s wrong with London, my birthland. (If you haven’t already, please read Andrew Haydon’s review of it: it’s gorgeous.) In tracing previous inhabitants of the decrepit council flat being illegally sublet to them by an unscrupulous landlord of uncertain and possibly multiple identity, they illuminate the precarity of existence for so many people here, not just at a personal economic level but something bigger: great swathes of society devalued as worthless and with that disposable. Louise and Becca covertly record a tour around a chi-chi new-build “luxury” “apartment” block and I feel that surge again, of wanting to smash bricks through every estate agent’s window. But beneath the anger and the desire for change, I’m aware of another, quieter feeling: a sense of wonder at Louise and Becca’s voices. They sing a lot in this show and the sound is beautiful. And beneath that wonder is another feeling: a prickle of jealousy. A wishing I could, too.
You know that truism about the show starting when you first start thinking about it? It turns out I’ve been thinking about Our Carnal Hearts for a really long time. Even when I didn’t know it at all.
So here we are at last: September 2016. The room in Shoreditch Town Hall is dark and austere, as dark and austere as the country’s politics. The audience seats are arranged in a square and positioned within them in a cross formation are four women: Louise Mothersole opposite Rhiannon Armstrong, Rachel Weston opposite Orla O’Flanagan. That hint of religiosity is picked up in their outfits, black with waist sashes; they might be nuns striving for contemporaneity. At the centre of the square, in white with black sash, Rachel is their high priestess, a preacher buoyed by the billowing clouds of the choir’s exquisite chords. And I know I overuse this word but Louise’s musical arrangements really are exquisite: playful in mood, satirical in effect, precise in composition.
What the choir perform is a liturgy of envy, plainsong paeans to all the things capitalism instructs us so forcefully and consistently to want, and all the new ways modern technology has contrived to foster competition. (How many followers do you have on Twitter? Who are you trying to kid, you don’t care?) And in between, Rachel tells two stories: of a visit from the good-luck fairy, and of a child who grows into a woman and finds a devilish way to commune with her envy.
Let’s unpick this a bit. First of all: religion. Rachel Mars is Jewish, and has made explicit reference to that in her work before (notably her absorbing, very funny but ultimately devastating dissection of comedy, The Way You Tell Them), but doesn’t mention it here. As I say, the iconography speaks of Christianity – and we all know at least the one-sentence theory entwining the Protestant ethic to the roots of capitalism, right? – but what Our Carnal Hearts particularly made me think about was Jewish persecution. Think of the carnal heart pulsing within the toxic seethe of The Merchant of Venice. Think of the exactitude with which Hitler singled out Jewish people as iniquitous to his vision of German prosperity. The commandment delivered to Moses is so bland: generally it’s translated as an instruction not to covet, and covet speaks only of desire, of wanting, not the tar and poison of envy. (As far as I can tell from online research, the Qur’an is more specific in naming and shaming envy.) But covetousness and envy are inextricably linked, not only to each other, but to harm.
The harm being done to people in the UK and US by mainstream politics as I write this is appalling. It is not new, because – we all know this, surely – British and American societies are founded in, found their prosperity in, the brutal assumption that some people are better, wiser, more deserving than others, and that played out with particular force racially. But it is present, pressing, the swill of our days, choking, terrifying, and for some (white) people it is new to be feeling that. Some of that harm has its roots in fear, some in envy. There was an astute piece by John Lanchester, published in the London Review of Books in the aftermath of the EU Referendum, which doesn’t contain the word envy once, but does feature this telling couple of sentences: “There are plenty of people who aren’t so much hostile to immigrants as baffled by them. They feel left behind, abandoned, poor, ignored and struggling; so how come immigrants want to come here, and do so well when they get here?” In the same paragraph, he refers to another article, published in 2014 in the Economist, about Tilbury, “where the white working class look on resentfully as immigrants get up early and get the train to jobs in the capital which, to them, seems impossibly distant”. Envy, pure and simple.
Or maybe impure and complicated would be better.
The “celebration of envy” (to quote Rachel’s programme note) that plays out in Our Carnal Hearts is exactly that: impure and complicated. At various points I felt myself squirming, because it seemed to me that the spirit of envy is too perniciously powerful for entertainment, that the grotesque power of Donald Trump is its own satire, or somehow beyond satire. But what Rachel is doing is superbly nuanced – much more than contemporary politics allows for. On the one hand, covetousness is condemned and silenced, on the other encouraged in obnoxious and alienating ways: so what is the space between this binary? How might envy be held within the panoply of human emotion, in a manner that isn’t injurious, as the basis of collaboration rather than competition?
It occurs to me, hours after sending this in to Exeunt, that Rachel has dealt before with the question of what might or might not be “beyond” comedy: that was the intellectual question underpinning The Way You Tell Them. In an article for the Stage published in 2013, she wrote: “So can we joke about anything? Yes. But as joke makers we can’t defer to the audience as moral gate keepers. The responsibility, and the need to atone when we get it wrong, is with us.” That reference to atonement comes again from her Jewish roots, in particular one of the prayers spoken during Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of Atonement: “We have clowned around, we have ridiculed good people, we have made a joke of things so we can never really repent because we never take anything seriously enough”. As I put these words together, I think of Trump, Farage, Johnson, all those white men in power who say abominable, reprehensible things then brush it off as a joke, sarcasm, a bit of fun. And show no repentance at all. Perhaps what unsettles me watching Our Carnal Hearts is the murkiness of its moral code: the way in which some of the writing relishes that inside us is tar. (This isn’t a negative criticism: the complicatedness is key to what I love about the work.)
Although Rachel has been working on Our Carnal Hearts a long time, I don’t know how “finished” it is in terms of the storytelling. I say this because, of the two chopped-up narratives embedded within, only one held me focused: the tale of the visit from the good-luck fairy, an acid sizzle of maleficence that takes another Old Testament exhortation, “an eye for an eye”, and gives it a vindictive twist. Delivered in progressively savage instalments, it’s bleak, grim, horrible again, and yet feels less like fiction than a fundamental expression of the Trump worldview. There’s a judicious balance throughout of amusement and deadly intent; and with it another, of distance and implication. The conversation with the audience never contrives to condemn, but it does invite everyone in the room to look deep into their own hearts, think about how and why they envy, and what they do with that emotion: choke on it, or administer it as poison.
On further reflection, I regret that bit wondering how “finished” the show might be. I was trying to resist the capitalist tendency to read theatre as fixed product, instead register the possibility that the text of Our Carnal Hearts might be mutable, but the point doesn’t come off. And it’s funny, thinking about it, how the story that least appeals to me could be cast with a critic in the role of the woman with flames for fingers: always burning with frustration at being one who can’t, torching the work when the lights go out.
I could go on for hours. I haven’t even mentioned the thing about older siblings yet. Way too much baggage there.
You know that truism about the show ending when you stop thinking about it? From now on, whenever I hear Spandau Ballet sing Gold, I’m going to think of Rachel Mars’ crooked singing, of the carnal heart pulsing within prison-bar ribs, of the ways in which I’m told to want, and not want, and how I might want better.
Our Carnal Hearts is touring until March 2017. Click here for more details.