It’s one of the seven deadly sins. We are told not to be envious of people’s successes. Unless of course if you attend Our Carnal Hearts. Presented as part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival, the show looks at the hidden workings of one of our uglier emotions. Written and performed by Rachel Mars, Our Carnal Hearts has received huge critical acclaim in the UK, and this month, it is Melbourne’s turn to experience the celebration of envy.
Mars conceived the show shortly after the 2011 London Riots, when a response to an injustice resulted in widespread looting and crime.
RM: I was really thinking about the pressures we all have to compete, to own things, to look over our shoulders at the next person. I read a lot of material about the psychology, anthropology and sociology of envy, interviewed marketing experts, advertising lecturers, business people, and friends about their attitudes to envy. In current capitalist societies we are pitted against each other all the time. That’s accepted. What is not acceptable is the feeling of envy. So you must compete, but you mustn’t express the discomfort of comparing yourself to other people. When we throw in social media, we’re in a storm of comparing our insides to other people’s outsides.
RM: The show is a place to explore that discomfort in a darkly comic way, and to reclaim the very human feeling of envy from political diatribe. I am always drawn to taboo subjects, and to finding communal, black-humoured ways of exploring them. Envy is something people don’t feel comfortable talking about because you are often envious of people very close to you. I wanted to make a public space to explore these very personal, shameful feelings and unravel them from capitalist doctrine about envy.
The weight of what is being expressed through Mars’ words, the choral score by Louise Mothersole (performed by the Invenio Singers Ensemble), and intimate seating in the round all contribute to the heightened sense of intimacy this production evokes.
RM: The staging choices are very considered; we are on a four sided stage with the audience banks facing each other. This shapes the experience of the show, at times feeling like a community, at times like a show-down. I was also inspired by the special set up on Sacred Harp singing – an American spiritual singing practice that happens in a square, facing in. The whole look of the stage, the design choices give a semi-religious, ritualistic feeling to the space. It should feel like we all just rocked up for some off-book, semi-illegal service. The singing – and the occasional invitations for the audience to join in – also shape this experience of being together whilst questioning the genuineness of that being together at exactly the same time.
Our Carnal Hearts has resonated strongly with audiences, allowing them to consider an emotion that is often shunned and to think about their place in their community.
RM: The show invites you to think about some of the grubby feelings we aren’t normally allowed to express. The shape of the show moves towards a potentially cathartic but also energising finale, but one that is deliberately murky. So I think it is an invitation to be in that complexity of feelings, all while people are brandishing rubber chickens and singing Spandau Ballet. The music is also a huge factor. Louise Mothersole has done an amazing piece of work as the composer. Music, and especially the unaccompanied human voice, hits an emotional (and sometimes unconscious) nerve when you hear it. I find it can move me even when I’m not consenting to be moved. I watched a lot of musicals growing up, and that moment when the huge choral number comes in, even if the sentiment is questionable, it is so powerful.
So how does Mars find a balance with her own feelings of envy? Where is the line?
RM: Envy creeps in for me when I’m generally having times of financial precarity and creative self-doubt. When I’m making work I rarely look over my shoulders at what other people are doing, I just get on with it. I try to balance having to compete with my artist peers because of the way opportunities in the arts are set up with having plenty of honest, open, loving friendships with my peers which acknowledge the ugly things we sometimes feel. I think if we can embrace envy as one of the spectrum of human emotions, and detach it from feelings of shame and guilt then we can recognise it, feel it and move on. Envy can sometimes point to something you desire, and that can be helpful if you then take steps to achieve it rather than trying to burn other people.
Read more about Our Carnal Hearts here.