Noble envy

24 March 2016

by Lily James

Envy sits in the corner, tearing the label off its beer. It’s a feeling that lives at the backs of workshops, at the corners of the bar. And I have been envious this week. Worse, at times I’ve been actively very jealous.

It’s necessary for your personal survival, and the survival of your self-esteem, to hope that every conversation you enter immediately becomes smarter and sparklier as you enter the circle. We want to know that we aren’t just wanted, but needed: that without us there would be drinks unbought, jokes unmade, laughs unlaughed. This sense of our (my) own importance extends from conversation into our relationship to the work of others – it’s a huge, and indeed vital part of being an audience member to want to critique a production, safe in the knowledge of your own unquestionable sparkle and smartness and talent: “I would have done that differently”, “I could have done it better”.

Thing is, this week, a lot, a lot, a lot, of the time, my confident feeling is “I would have done that worse.” It's not a terrible sensation, but it's one that my gut reaction to is to completely bury. And this burying means picking and picking at a piece of work, at a creative team, dismantling, deflating, until you’ve prodded at their production so much that, in your head, there’s a you-sized hole, right in the middle, that you’d be the perfect person to fill. A big chalk outline that shows everyone that you’re talking to that your absence is a crime. And by you, I mean me, but it’s an emotion that’s neglected in the midst of discussions of great idealism, about community, truth and beauty.

And maybe that’s fair. Envy is the emotion of the beauty pageant, the school disco, and to say “I’m jealous of you” means acknowledging that in this beautiful, un-cynical artistic community, I haven’t lost a profound sense of being in competition, and of losing. It’s even quite shaming, to come out of a show in which the artists have pushed themselves and bared themselves, and to feel, in the bad bit of your brain, that you wish it was you being talked about in the foyer. Being totally candid, it would even be quite cool to just envy people as artists, even noble. But I don’t feel noble at all sometimes. Because when the director of an incredible play walks in to the Spa Bar looking like a mid-90s Gwen Stefani, I’m not just crushing on them as a creative, but on their entire aesthetic, their brand.

Because, when it's your peers, it is tricky to believe that their success isn’t your failure. They do your degree, see the same shows and take out the same loans, and it's that lack of distance that makes you feel like you bought the same flat-pack as everyone else, but you have no idea how to assemble it. Or that maybe you haven’t, and you got stuck at the back of IKEA buying fake pot plants and mesh shoe racks while everyone else went home and built their own bed. But “peers” doesn’t express what these people are to you (me) at all. They’re not “peers”, that abstract bracket that could mean age, gender, economic background. These are people you see at the bar, whose conversations you listen in on, whose conversations you circulate, looking for an in, wondering how it can be that they know everyone, wondering whether, if you did just get in there, you could really show them – although I have no idea what it is I’m really going to show. Its like speed dating, or maybe dating on speed, waiting for your turn to really make people understand how great you are. I keep using this word “they”, like a tin-foil hatted conspiracy theorist, because it's often not a specific person but a unit of shining people that’s the target for my jealousy, an amorphous blob of good ideas and ambitious hairstyles.

In praise of envy, too much focus on the integrity of our reaction to art can deny that nasty and small reactions can act as a sort of growing pain. Most of the time, a lot of the time, (some of the time) I do feel truthful and beautiful and joyful and enriched. But feeling small and aggravated and uglified and tired is certainly a spur. To understand what the word truth means better, to be stronger and fitter to be able to perform physical theatre, to watch more, to know more – to be able to order red wine at the bar without getting blue teeth, to get a cool fringe, to go to fringe, to wear things that are fringed. And it’s a good spur, even if it sometimes feels like a five-pound note attached to a fishing rod that gets yanked away whenever you get near it. But I do feel like there’s something honourable, or just OK, in chasing it regardless.