at Warwick Arts Centre, Thursday 6th June 2013
I first experienced Daniel Bye’s The Price of Everything via the Northern Stage at St Stephens live stream during the Edinburgh Fringe last year. Rather than trek for an hour across the city early(ish) in the morning and pay a tenner to sit in a small dark room drinking milk, I instead sat in my own small dark room drinking coffee and watching the show for free. I know I enjoyed the piece because I’ve been talking about it all year and using it as a reference point for some of my own projects, but for some reason I didn’t write about it. And now, after rewatching it live at Warwick Arts Centre as part of the (L)one Festival and chatting to Bye as part of a pre-show discussion, it feels as good a time as any to have a bit of a think about it.
The Price of Everything is marketed as a “performance lecture”, which I’m told was decided upon in order to give the show a sense of “mock-seriousness” and fool an audience into thinking they’re going to be watching some “high-art” when in fact the show is anything but impenetrable in the way we may expect “high-art” to be. Indeed, it’s only really the first half of the show which resembles anything like a lecture at all, with the latter portion becoming far more simply a piece of storytelling. By telling us stories, jokes and anecdotes about the relationship between price and value, Bye asks us to take on a “naive and reckless optimism” in order to situate ourselves in opposition to structures which encourage us to be cynical, guarded and selfish.
The use of the word “Price” in the title goes some way to explaining Bye’s anger (and anger is definitely the word considering the passion with which he speaks in the show) at the commodification of everyday life, where whatever we come into contact with is given a “price” which has nothing – or very little – to do with its “value”. We happily interchange the two words without thinking that they hold completely different meanings, and are encouraged to believe that those things with a high “value” must be given a high “price” (see: university education etc). We are also reminded of Lord Darlington’s profession that a cynic is “a man who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing” (Lady Windermere’s Fan), and in this case the omission of the second clause suggests that the idea that things actually have value is slowly being eroded away from our cultural consciousness.
It also nicely sets up the opening section of the show, during which Bye takes us through – with slides – the cost of a human body if we were to exchange each individual body part. It amounts to a silly figure which I can’t quite remember, but serves to highlight the absurdity of putting a price on certain things: though selling our bodies off would make a hell of a lot of money and makes perfect sense financially, we wouldn’t ever do a thing because we value our lives more than that.
Throughout this whole section, Bye pours each audience member a small glass of milk amounting to seventeen pence, which is the amount each tax-paying citizen pays towards the arts each week. We are then invited to go up and collect a glass each, and all Bye wants in return is a smile and a “thank you”. It’s a small gesture which serves to underline the stupidity and short-sightedness behind any reasoning to cut arts budgets, and nicely acts as a big “fuck you” to that late milk-snatcher of the 1980s. But there was also a part of me which didn’t want to take the milk; if the contents of that glass can go to the arts, why should I take some milk which I don’t need? Which goes to prove Bye’s suggestion that we cannot separate price and value.
This act of walking to the stage also makes us implicit in the piece and underlines simply a running theme of the show which asks us to become active in a struggle against late capitalism from within its own structures. By spreading kindness and forcing us to be active within the confines of the theatrical space, Bye offers the possibility for this happening outside the studio’s walls, convincing us in the process that a better, kinder, more selfless alternative is possible (interestingly, I felt far more galvanised to go out and act after experiencing the show live than when sat slobbing on a sofa last year, which I guess goes to show the importance of acknowledging an audience).
In order to convince us of this, The Price of Everything is full of stories. Stories about the time when Bye sold an air guitar for an obscene amount of money on eBay. Stories about buying the coffee for the person behind you in the queue and the chain continuing for hours. Stories about creating a community-based, value-driven utopia on a high-street which blossomed from the humble beginning of a free milk bar. They begin as believable but snowball into idealised narratives, therefore bringing into doubt the verisimilitude of the previous tales whilst forcing us to consider the structures of those we’ll be told later. Is Bye being unethical by not conveying truth? Or is he offering us hope? I never once felt duped or led astray throughout the hour and instead felt that the fictions strengthened my resolve to do something. It’s just struck me that even the facts and figures given at the beginning may well have been doctored, but funnily enough this doesn’t in any way diminish the point. When politicians and the media lie to us every day why should I feel angry when in a theatre – a place where I go to experience something which isn’t real – stories are told to make a point?
Bye’s performance style also feeds into this point. Bye told me that the reason for bringing director Dick Bonham into the mix was to make sure he “wasn’t acting”, but there’s actually a clear presentational aspect to his performance style, and it lies halfway between “acting” and “not acting”. There are marks he clearly has to hit and he undoubtedly follows a script (with a few ad-libs here and there). And he also wears the same clothes for every performance. Which means that, though the text is written in Bye’s own voice, with digressions that sound like digressions and jokes which feel organic, a character of sorts is very clearly being played.
I’ve spent the past weekend trying to consider the ways in which these notes about form and performance tie into Bye’s points about value and positive action but have struggled to come to any kind of conclusion which isn’t tenuous or far-fetched. The best I can really do is agree with Bye’s suggestion that the “mock-seriousness” allows us to situate the show – and by extension, the debate – within a slightly different framework, demonstrating that it’s a lot easier than it looks to individually become kinder people. All we have to do to fight the pervasive cynicism caused by current structures is to perform a slightly different role, to tell a few stories and to partake in random acts of kindness.