I wrote about The Rabble – a week-long R&D process run by CG&Co in June 2015 – a month after it finished; I wrote hurriedly, trying to publish it before the children’s summer holiday, and for the first time in my history of working with Chris, he expressed reservations about what I’d written. The Rabble was hosted by Farnham Maltings, an hour away from my home by train, and clashed with other work, so I hadn’t been able to be in the room every day: this is usual for a CG&Co process, but in this instance was frustrating, because the two days I’d missed (Tuesday and Thursday) also happened to be the most complex, in terms of the politics, ethics and cultural questions discussed. In fact, one person in the company wondered whether those days were the most complex precisely because I wasn’t in the room, earwigging and scribbling, which still makes me sad, but that’s by the by.

It felt important for any documentation I compiled to include reflection on those days, and since I wasn’t able to do it myself, I asked the four company members aside from Chris – maker/performer/writer Rachel Mars, maker/artist/violinist Rhiannon Armstrong, singer/songwriter/guitarist Adrian Roye and musician/live artist Hannah Davis – to tell me about the week. With the intention of quoting them as close as possible to verbatim, I talked to each person separately, and limited us to six key questions/frames:

a moment of joy in the room

a moment of discomfort

songs that resonated

songs that didn’t

a game of truth or lies

the discussion or idea that will carry on gnawing

all of which related to specific characteristics of or events in the room. I wrote following the same structure and, because one of the company had, on our first day, admired my writing about Riot Act specifically because it didn’t identify participants, I didn’t attribute any of the quoted text but allowed them instead to speak as a rabble. Which concerned Chris because it created the impression of “a sort of Big Brother Diary Room where participants get to anonymously vent the unhappinesses and misgivings that they’ve chosen not to share in the room, which is problematic because the space in which to have those conversations is in this case *markedly* a part of the contract of being present”. None of which I’d considered.

Chris emphasised that he was “not in any way wanting to prohibit or even delay its going up”, but the comment gave me pause. I re-read the responses from others in the company, got the feeling I’d caused one of them a flinch of distress, and decided myself not to publish. Looking back, I’m glad: those jostling voices effectively conveyed rabble, incoherent chatter, but at the expense of delicacy.

So here I am, starting again, rewriting a story already written. Which feels right: The Rabble is concerned with oral tradition, stories told and retold, sometimes in song; with the ways in which communities know themselves through those stories and songs, and communities change as people from elsewhere bring new words and melodies to them. Also, The Rabble is concerned with finding an accommodation, creating a line of harmony with – or against – a story that jars or a song that unsettles. And The Rabble is concerned with trying again, like this: back when Rachel Mars was seven years old, a teacher told her she couldn’t sing, and so she stopped singing – but in the Rabble room she sang loudly, robustly, with a smile in her cheeks and tears in her eyes, because here was “a place of fuck-it around singing”, in the key of not no but yes.


I no longer remember when I wrote all of the above – maybe in December 2015, in the gap between Weaklings ending and Every One beginning. I’m writing this now another half year later, on 24 June 2016, as an attempt to abate the nausea that has lodged in my stomach and my soul since I was woken up at 6.07am by the words: “Oh fuck, Leave has won.” In the aftermath of the EU referendum, I’m thinking again of the premise and the promise of The Rabble, about the kinds of dialogue I have through theatre and the kinds I want to have, and about the ways in which communities define themselves against the other and are defined from the outside. I’m thinking that work like The Rabble might be vital in the coming months. But before I can say that, I ought to say more about what it is…


An invitation

Emailed by Chris to all participants a few nights before The Rabble convened:

(i) I’m interested in what the idea of folk music means to everyone — what is a folk song now? & what else could it be? Likewise, folk tales / stories, I guess.

(ii) Could you maybe have a think about a cover version of a song that you’d like to put in the room? A song you love (or maybe hate) but would really like to hear done in a different way, perhaps, even if that difference is only about doing it yourself (or with others)?

(iii) Is there a story of resistance — whether big-P or little-P political — that attaches to your own life? Either something you did or were involved in, or something you heard about that caught your imagination and has stayed with you?

(iv) Are there any songs or stories that are associated with the place you were born and/or grew up?

A morning ritual

We didn’t really know how to start, and so we started with an Inuit chanting song. Rhiannon brought it to the room and what a mysterious, challenging thing it was: a sequence of heaving breaths punctuated by stamps, claps and crisp slaps to the thighs. It was slippery as a seal in its rhythmic leaps across unexpected pauses and unfamiliar offbeats, and the demand of that rhythm was useful, I think, in opening up the question of what it is to encounter an other and not reject but attempt to absorb it, bending yourself to its shape.

Being shit together

In the run-up to The Rabble, every member of the company emailed Chris individually to say: “I’m not very good at x, you know.” Whether it was singing or improvising or playing a particular instrument, each person had their own hang-up. At points the Rabble room felt fuelled by the sense of liberation that comes from doing something you’re apparently “not very good at”, doing it with gusto, and in company. And doing it with a feeling of permission: that was key.

I felt this very personally: in CG&Co rooms I sit quietly on the sidelines, but with the Rabble I felt I could join in. I’ve always sung, to myself, sometimes loudly, but always with the memory of my mum coming into my room when I was 12 and asking: “Who told you you could sing?” I wrote about this during Riot Act, too: how many of us have a story like that, of being children and being told by a grown-up that our voices were tuneless, graceless, wrong. I had a moment of bonding with Rachel talking about why we don’t play instruments: neither of us had the patience to be bad at it, to practice through that barrier until we became good, or at least, what’s conventionally deemed good. There’s a line in my notebook, from the first day in the room, probably spoken by Chris, in which he looks forward to: “pushing through the shit barrier to make something beautiful”.


Rhiannon brought the sea traditional My Johnny Was a Shoemaker and it lit Hannah up like a torch. While the rest of us sang melody, she asked Rhiannon to teach her the countermelody, or harmony; I think of this now as an idiosyncratic gesture, typical of the angle at which she places herself to the world. That harmony tapped into something very deep inside Hannah, a sense of connection she feels with certain notes, certain transpositions (such an apposite word). The descendent of Ashkenazi Jewish people, she feels no actual claim on these traditional songs rooted in Celtic and Anglo-Saxon lands, but something in them resonates in her bones, and when she inhabits them, she feels the comfort of belonging.

Rachel and I talked at the end of the week about the language of music (something we both feel we lack), and the ways in which the body knows what the brain can’t name. She found herself repeatedly saying of a sound: I like that, what’s that? And consistently the answer was: an octave. The ways in which the body responds instinctively to music was to her an acute reminder that “we’ve been surrounded by song for ever”.


Hannah introduced another sea shanty, Bound for South Australia, and this opened up a conversation about otherness. We wondered about the place Australia holds in folk music: faraway, unknown, disconcerting. We wondered, too, about the ways in which folk song is used to broadcast nationalist sentiment, or (re)construct nationhood, or colonise. (Writing this now [that is, December 2015], I think about the complications to that: about the journey of British and Irish folk songs to America, where they settled in, for instance, the Appalachians, and now seem to belong there; and the threads that tie the blues of the American south to the lands from which slaves came.) I no longer remember who told the story of Bulgarian women’s choral music, but it felt emblematic as a warning: its distinctive harmonies, apparently so ancient, embedded in female experience and resonating through time, were actually the contrivance of a male composer, Filip Kutev, who created this sound in the 1950s as a means of sculpting a national identity. To what extent can the stories of place handed down in song be trusted?

There was talk, too, of the abuse of folk music, when employed to enact harm on people as a way of shaping or enforcing social order. Rhiannon found it particularly difficult when Chris sang a hymn from the repertoire of the viciously anti-queer Westboro Baptist Church: “I felt like in milliseconds I saw him as he could have been in another upbringing,” she told me at the end of the week. “I was imagining him as this born-again Christian who was looking to be cured. I really mourned for him.” Another discussion I missed focused on murder ballads – a tradition that, against all better judgement, I love – as a key expression of misogyny in music, the violence in them so discordant with the beauty of their melody and construction.

Show and make

In 2012, Chris sent me an email full of thinking about the difference between “{theatre that shows} vs {theatre that makes}”: theatre that thinks it is a representation of something and theatre that knows it is an enactment. This idea had a strong presence in the Rabble room too, especially relating to the unease around a song’s politics. Rachel talked about it when describing her inability to sing along with the Katy Perry song I Kissed a Girl, introduced to the room by Hannah under the rubric “songs we dislike”; it wasn’t an I-can’t-sing that held Rachel back, but a queasiness about the way the song “massively trivialises same-sex relationships. That was the game, to put that in the room, and yet I didn’t find a way to receive it in a subverted way.” In other words, the Rabble’s appropriation of that song wasn’t for her a representation of how queer sits in mainstream culture, but another enactment of othering.


That’s as far as I got writing about this the second time. Re-reading these sections on Friday 24 June, I can see why I was drawn to The Rabble today: there is so much here that reflects on the demonisation of the other that has happened in the referendum campaign, on national identity and how it’s constructed, and the refusal to be defined by a narrative you resist. What I haven’t yet explained was how this work was intended to function, should it be commissioned as an actual performance, and that is the most vital component of all. The Rabble is, could be, a touring show: CG&Co rock up in a town for a week and install themselves in a place of community or public function, to which locals are invited to share songs and stories of that place, or of themselves. Chris always spoke about the venue very specifically: it wouldn’t be a theatre, it would be a hall of some sort, whether church or village or sports. As he put it on the first morning: “Wherever the polling stations are set up, that’s where we’re going.”

This R&D took place a few weeks after the 2015 general election, during which it emerged that almost 3.9m people voted for UKIP, a result I found incomprehensible, no matter the evidence I’d encountered to lead me to expect it. I spent the two years preceding it travelling the country with theatre producers Fuel, hosting post-show discussions in places of “low cultural engagement” (read: places deprived of funding or support at a national level, places where industry had been systematically dismantled, places where people live at the periphery, places with low employment, places sneered at by politicians and journalists alike), and what I quickly learned was that in London I live in a bubble, of privilege and hope. Taxi drivers and former service men in Colchester don’t live in that bubble, nor do the people drinking in the pint for a pound pub in Stockton, nor do the people being priced out of Margate’s shops, cafes and houses by gentrifying down-from-Londoners. I knew this in June 2015, and yet, in the first draft of this piece, I didn’t mention any of it. What I wrote about was the bubble of the rehearsal room. What an idiot.

The other bubble I live inside is theatre. Theatre is perfectly placed to encourage dialogue: I really believe this. But so much of the dialogue I have through theatre, and that I suspect most makers and writers have, is with other people who exist within its frame of reference. That’s why it’s so vital that The Rabble is intended for non-theatre spaces: it opens space for dialogue by stealth.

I’m really fascinated at the moment by the possibilities of dialogue by stealth. Earlier this month, I went to a session at my kids’ school informing parents about upcoming sex and relationships lessons: it took place a few days after the shootings in Orlando, so I wanted to make sure that same-sex relationships, at the very least, were within sight of the conversations (they aren’t, it transpires: too controversial. Still a battle to be fought). By chance I shared a table with the only dad in the room, a Muslim with Pakistani roots, taught so little about his body and sex that when puberty hit he thought it was a punishment from god (his wordage). He and I clashed on everything: when we would talk with our children about menstruation, about puberty, about where babies come from. I should be sitting over there, he said, pointing to a table of mums wearing headscarves. But he wasn’t, and nor was I with the mums (one white, one Asian) with whom I broadly agree on everything, and that meant we had to work much harder: we had to listen, be truthful, find an accommodation. The result was 30 minutes of seeing through his eyes, and asking him to see through mine: one of the best conversations I’ve had this year.

I can’t imagine talking with this man under any other circumstance, least of all about sex. He reminded me a lot of my brother (always much more Cypriot than me), and I barely even speak to him. Dialogue by stealth gave me an opportunity I would struggle either to make for myself or accept if presented outright. This is the root of what I love about the Theatre Clubs I’ve been co-hosting since 2012, either with the Young Vic or with Fuel or as a pop-up around London: the opportunity it offers to talk politics or ethics or humanity in the guise of talking about theatre. I want more of that, with more people who think they don’t want any of it.

I want to use theatre as a way of talking with people who voted UKIP; people who voted to leave the EU; people who believe the lie that “immigration” is to blame for their inability to find a house they can afford, a job with reasonable pay or hours, a school place for their child, a library to spend time in, or a doctor’s appointment when they need one. I want to know more about where they’re coming from, and ask them to see where I’m coming from. I’m scared: that’s why I want to do this on my safe ground. But I know they’ll never come there: there needs to be a place where we can meet half way.

The Rabble promises this. It invites people to do something entirely fundamental to human existence, tell a story, in a building that is familiar to them – if not as a polling station, then as a hall, whether church or village or sports. The question it raises for CG&Co is what to do if faced with a story that is racist in tenor, or homophobic, or in any way promoting a worldview the members of the company don’t share. And that question was sharpened by experiences in the rehearsal room, of schism over song.



This was the situation, as reported back to me. It was the second day in the room and Adrian, feeling “comfortable, and like I knew everyone already”, shared with the group one of his own songs, Josephine. “It’s a murder ballad told from the perspective of an abusive husband driven to insanity through his jealousy and control of his wife,” Adrian explained to me later. “That leads them to have this big fight and he tries to kill her but she actually kills him. It isn’t a pro-abuse song, but if it’s not set up properly it can offend.” And that’s exactly what happened in the room: whatever occurs at the end of the song, what Hannah, Rachel and Rhiannon heard was a story of domestic violence against a woman. Telling the story back to me, Rachel said: “Rhiannon put it really beautifully and harshly, talking about how the song itself ends up doing a violence, and how it would be very difficult to get a response to that song rather than a reaction because we’re travelling with years and years of misogyny and years and years of violence to women.”

The conversation Adrian’s song ignited was, he admitted, “horrendous at the time”. Hannah in particular confessed to having “an extremely strong reaction – basically I lost my shit – because he clearly felt he had subverted the genre by writing the twist at the end, but he hadn’t subverted the genre, he’d just subjected us to four minutes of horrible stuff”. The point, said Rachel, was that Adrian was arguing for nuance, “but I don’t think we’ve got to a place where we can have nuance around misogyny, that doesn’t do the job”. From Rhiannon’s perspective, though, this was all incredibly positive: “Obviously it was difficult, but this is what we came here to do: find out what matters and what we come up against.”

It was a day when Chris’ use of the check in/check out structure became vital for clearing the air. As Rachel recalled: “We had a very tense afternoon where Adrian silenced himself, then he checked out really beautifully. He said himself that, without this system, he would never have wanted to bring it up, he probably would have gone home and really beaten himself up about it. Instead the check-out system made it all on the outside, and he felt able to be back in the room.”

The argument also opened the way for a lengthy discussion about, in Adrian’s description, “context and delivery of songs, and how things can be implied, how things can be interpreted. To quote Ani DiFranco, every tool is a weapon if you hold it right.” (Again, the lines of connection to discussion around the EU referendum are clear: a referendum in which the word “immigration” has been bandied about, as though it’s not a Molotov cocktail, deliberately employed to avoid the use of more accurate words like “poverty gap”, “exploitation” and “racism”; in which nuance and complexity have been trampled by the opportunistic sloganeering of people who never have to suffer the consequences of their own actions.)

What this incident revealed, said Adrian, was the risk embedded in a work like The Rabble. Two days later – again when I wasn’t in the room – the group had a long hard think about: “how do we handle those situations when audiences share their songs with us and their songs are offensive: do we acknowledge this gift that they’ve given us, do we perform that piece, or do we just talk about the fact that we can’t perform it? It opened up a whole world for us.”

A condition of enchantment

Although she disliked its content, Rachel “would have hummed along to Josephine really easily, because it was enchanting. Singing is a condition of enchantment.” This came up repeatedly for her over the week: “there’s a certain charisma in singing”, and because of that “you really have to think about your responsibility, and what you’re asking people to sing with you – because it can be attractive and abhorrent”.

Cultural appropriation

Two days after the Jospehine incident, there was a conversation about cultural appropriation: what does it mean to sing the songs of another? Frustratingly, I wasn’t there for that one, either – but I was around for Chris’ potted history of the song Wimoweh (The Lion Sleeps Tonight), tracing a line from South African Zulu musician Solomon Linda through Pete Seeger and Karl Denver to Tight Fit. It was horrible, because what you hear is literally whitewashing – that and, as Rachel put it, “money, coming through in the production”.

When I asked Rachel what ideas from the week would continue to buzz in her brain, she quoted Adrian, “talking about where does influence and honour end and insult and theft begin”. Music is full of insult and theft: from the earliest days of the pop industry, the time of the dance bands in the 1930s, white musicians have plundered the work of black musicians, made it “palatable” for white audiences – and earned much more than their “inspirations” could ever hope to in the process. In this way, music is a microcosm of the capitalist exploitation on which 20th-century prosperity was constructed. To what extent could The Rabble open up a much-needed conversation about this?


Adrian emerged from the week with a more positive reflection, reached through singing Johnny Was a Shoemaker. “There was something about that song melodically and harmonically that I really enjoyed,” he said. “The melodies made me think about traditional folk songs, and how the melodies can be so similar, and yet they all stand apart so well. It made me think about how songs are changed and evolved and passed down: it’s like a tapestry or a quilt that you sew through generations, every bit has a reference to every other part but is somehow different. I think that’s a beautiful way to look at music: it’s not all about this one piece, it’s how it links to other pieces.”

That isn’t just a beautiful way of thinking about music: it’s an essential way to think about people, community, society, too.


On Wednesday evening a group of local teenagers, members of a drama group, arrived for what was loosely described as a workshop with The Rabble. What to do with them? Chris noted, a little ruefully, that “jokes, tall stories, urban myths, pub stories” had been absent from the room so far. As with Monkey Bars (the CG&Co show made from interviews with primary-school children), he was particularly interested in getting them to talk about bravery and rebellion. At the root of The Rabble, he said on the first day, is an interest in stories of arrival: not just to a place, from another town or another country, but arrival into self or adulthood, or the arrival of identifying as queer. And, twinned with that, change: what was going on in this place a generation ago that isn’t any more – and vice versa? And so it made sense to get the teens to tell arrival and ancestry stories, with the stipulation that they didn’t have to be true.

What struck me, hard, in the game of truth and lies that followed was how many of the teenagers present could trace their families back to the aristocracy of the Middle Ages. For reals. The contrast with the Rabble group was sharp: Rachel and Hannah both descend from middle-European Jewish people, Rhiannon is Canadian and moved to the UK herself, I don’t remember which generation in Adrian’s family established in the UK but his roots are elsewhere, as are mine. On the first day, we talked a lot about the possibility of The Rabble antagonising people as it travelled the country, by representing, in Rachel’s words, “the fucking Londoners”. In getting people to share stories of their place, how long would it take to reach ethnicity and immigrant cultures – and, through that, prejudice and racism?

An ocean of misunderstanding

I’ve seen Chris talk about this twice now, first when performing his Pete Seeger tribute show at Forest Fringe in 2014, and again on the first day in The Rabble room, but if it weren’t for him writing about it in The Forest and the Field (p225-6) I’d struggle to convey the point accurately now. It relates to a recording of his “favourite ever audience”, a group of maybe 1000 people, gathered in the Sanders Theatre at Harvard University in 1980 for a concert by Seeger, at which, Chris writes, “Seeger uses his between-song commentary to make explicit the entanglement of his repertoire, his audience members’ capacity for creativity, and the urgency of social and political change”. In particular, there’s a moment when Seeger invites the room to sing along with The Water Is Wide, an ancient folk tune he’d once dismissed as sentimental because it concerns a romantic relationship, but which had come to represent to him “the ocean of misunderstanding between human beings. And we can sing all sorts of militant songs,” Seeger continued, “but if we can’t bridge that ocean of misunderstanding we’re not going to get this world together.” Seeger emphasises that there are no wrong ways to sing along with this song: “Literally any note works.” And it’s the “communal queerness of this sound world” that results that so appeals to Chris, a “complex noise” in which, he suggests, it’s possible to hear even the silence of those “overwhelmed, and perhaps a little disturbed” by Seeger’s invitation to use one’s voice.

In my original notes for this post, collated so long ago now I’m not even sure what I was thinking, I wrote: “the togetherness he creates in an audience – does theatre really do this? Can it?” I think what was preoccupying me at the time was the togetherness of co-creation: the opportunity to join in. Something Chris talked about on the final day in the room was the way in which art is seen as a specialist or professional act, creating a false separation from activities that should be as natural as tending a plant, fundamental to our existence as “engaged human beings”. We all have a voice, and the capacity to use it. In these post-referendum days, what I’m more concerned with is the togetherness of political dialogue, and the ocean of misunderstanding in which the entire country is now not waving but drowning. What can theatre do to bridge that?


So here I am, on the morning of Tuesday 28 June, writing this in snatches between feverishly checking twitter and reading reading reading, articles about the implosion of the Labour party and advocating an alliance amid the progressive left and setting out a progressive-left approach to acting on the referendum or otherwise predicting the future, articles listening to the voices of the white poor and travelling the country surveying the destruction wreaked by Thatcher or assessing the sociology of the referendum, articles about the rise of racism and David Cameron’s role in stoking it and challenging the obnoxious rhetoric of “real people”, even the occasional article about where theatre might fit into all this. I’m a mess of adrenalin, sick with extreme terror, burning with extreme fury, buzzing with extreme optimism, because what’s needed in this country – redistribution of wealth, statutes against exploitation, zero tolerance of fascist expression – seems so simple to me, so within reach, and yet distant as ever, people’s actual needs and lives ignored as politicians, journalists, pundits continue to focus on “immigration” as a lazy and dangerous catch-all term for what’s wrong and how it can be fixed. There is a part of me exhilarated by the idea that we might finally, collectively be reaching for the pitchforks, yet livid and frightened that so many people will be pointing those pitchforks at the poor and powerless. I want a revolution, but a revolution led by the rhetoric of Farage and Johnson? Fuck no.

Yesterday on twitter, Francois Matarasso – who works in community art and is one of the wisest people I know – wrote: “Millions feel that no one has listened to them for decades. Some creative listening is needed – something for artists to explore?” The result of the referendum sent me back to The Rabble because it offers, could offer, a space for exactly that creative listening. I’m aware that publishing this now is a colossal waste of time: no one is reading about theatre at the moment, least of all an R&D process that took place a year ago; no one is interested in a rallying cry for the potential generosity of theatre when the entire country is in a state of collapse, especially when that cry – like so many sounding at the moment – is being made at the stable door while galloping hooves thunder in the distance. But this is my work, and this is my cry now: to people in power in theatre to recognise the need for open-hearted work that creates a space for conversation with every kind of person about who we are and how we are living. Theatre that is willing to sit at the table and listen – and then bravely put forward another point of view. This isn’t Chris talking, or the company talking, this is me, this is what I want. Dialogue that really matters.



What a tricky word this is. It dates back to ancient Greece and was ambiguous even then. Its known and common meaning is stranger – that’s what gives us xenophobia – but layered with that are other, apparently contradictory meanings: guest, host, friend. When I noted this in December 2015 I was interested in how The Rabble leans into all those meanings: arriving as strangers, as guests in a community, hosting a night of story and song, then leaving perhaps as friends. As I sign this off, I’m more concerned with how we can bring that kind of complexity back into our political and media narratives, replace xenophobia with its opposite, philoxenia, and find a way to get, if not the world, at least the country fighting together for positive change.

**I was going to do a playlist to end this post, and might create one another day, but for now, here’s Sweet Honey in the Rock, a band introduced to the room by Rhiannon, who say it like it is, in a way we really need: