Daniel Bye begins every show of his play, Going Viral, by enquiring after the health of the audience. One of the greatest mysteries of modern medicine, viruses, is the subject of the British actor’s solo, Going Viral, won the Scotsman Fringe First award 2015 at the Edinburgh Fringe, the largest arts festival in the world, and has been brought to India by the British Council and QTP productions. After shows in Mumbai, Delhi, Chandigarh, Pune, Bangalore and Ahmedabad, Going Viral will be staged in Kolkata. Another show and a workshop is scheduled for Mumbai from December 16 to 18.
Each member of the audience, says Bye, is on a plane from Uganda to the UK and every passenger is weeping. “You are the protagonist and I play your role in the play,” says the actor. Whoever the passengers come in contact with after the plane lands, bursts into tears and cannot stop. Twitter calls them #weepers and their numbers increase to epidemic proportions. The protagonist is the only one unaffected. Untouched by the mayhem, the virus enters new humans and begins to use the host cells to make multiple copies of itself.
Bye uses candy of different colours to demonstrate the virus, the host cell, and the life cycle of the contagion. A medical chapter becomes a taut drama. A lesson on the R0 — the number of people that one person with a viral infection can infect — is conducted through an audience quiz. “A performance lecture is designed to impart information on a subject but in a way that is playful, surprising and uses the liveness of the theatrical moment. It is well-known as a genre in the UK, although considered fairly experimental and non-mainstream. I wanted to avoid the old device of putting the science into the mouth of a scientist character talking to a stupid character,” says Bye.
Into the science is woven a human drama. Everybody the protagonist knows becomes one of the #weepers. One newscaster calls him a zombie because he does not cry. After his picture is tweeted, the protagonist goes on the run and is chased by a young Indian doctor. “I started working on the show before the Ebola crisis and, by the time it opened, the crisis was over. It’s a subject where fascinating science meets questions about how we behave towards each other in the world,”says Bye, who has given the protagonist in Going Viral his own background.
Bye grew up in Middlesbrough, where there wasn’t much by way of theatre. Neither of his parents was an artiste but Bye became interested in theatre as a teenager and involved with it seriously when he went to University of Leeds to study English Literature. As a playwright and performer, Bye responds to the contemporary events. “All art is part of a conversation about the world we live in, and the world we want to live in. It can be active or passive in that conversation. I choose to be active,” he says.
Another play, The Price of Everything, which will be performed in Kolkata on December 10, emerged from thinking about how nothing is considered to have value except in financial terms. “I thought it would be fun to make a show that attempted to put a value on all sorts of intangible items in order to satirise this world view. There are things, like art and love and the natural world, which are intrinsically valuable regardless of how much one might pay for them,” he says. Bye could have been talking about the era of demonetisation.