“Everyone on the plane is in floods of tears… except you.” Sat in a circle, awkwardly facing one other, the atmosphere of the Barber Studio, down in the depths of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, is uncannily similar to when you first get on to a plane: you’ve got to spend an unspecified amount of time in close proximity to a bunch of strangers. This was undoubtedly the effect that Daniel Bye (writer, performer, lecturer) was going for and when he springs from a seat in the front row, ordering his startled neighbour to ask “How are you?”, his response hints at the uneasiness that his new play deals with. “Terrible.”
Bye’s latest offering ‘Going Viral’ is a mysterious affair, merging monologue, physicality and a healthy amount of audience participation in brilliant fashion to produce a play that gets to the heart of what it is to be infected. Having had a hugely successful run at Edinburgh’s esteemed Summerhall, ‘Going Viral’ shows off all of Bye’s talents. Taking the form of a performance lecture, the play follows the spread of mass-weeping throughout Britain after a flight from Uganda is seemingly infected with a tear-inducing virus. The government does its best to pass it off as one large wave of hysteria, introducing a scheme to abolish empathy, but Bye’s character – the only one to have avoided the virus – finds himself in the clutches of an Indian doctor, intent on finding a cure. However, despite this compelling plot line, the play summons much more from its audience than mere amusement. Bye has all the hallmarks of a master storyteller, and holds his audience in an engaging, thrilling style.
Some of the play’s defining moments are when, as if momentarily distracted from his own narrative, Bye steps out of the role of actor and moves more formally into the role of lecturer. These sections are given over to discussing the science behind viruses, with Bye’s intricate script managing to link all of this back to his storyline. In an array of poignant eccentricities, audience members are offered hand disinfectant, asked to pluck individual hairs from Bye’s arm and, most interestingly, are treated to a quiz on the levels of infection in specific diseases. Who would have thought that, in terms of efficiency of infection, Measles is deadlier than Ebola? This interaction between spectator and actor hints at Bye’s belief that the true dialogue of theatre is held between the stage and the audience. The genre-spanning on display here is precise, structured, excellent, never veering off course.
‘Going Viral’ succeeds in expressing the link between body and mind, challenging the audience to consider who rules who. Are we more at risk from a viral disease or from the fear of a disease going viral? In a line that sums up the play’s knack for fusing the scientific with the deeply personal, Bye recognises that, whether it inhabits the mind or the body, infection is inescapable: “We’re not fighting a battle; we’re the battleground.”
Image courtesy of West Yorkshire Playhouse