By Mickhaella Ermita
You’re on a flight from Uganda to England. One after another, your co-passengers all break into tears. Everyone except you.
On the ground, the condition spreads; locally, nationally, and then globally. Before long, the death count rises. At the airport, overzealous health inspectors police travel to affected regions. In the streets, protective masks and hazmat suits are more commonly seen than real human beings.
Sound eerily familiar? Five years after its initial run, British theatre artiste Daniel Bye’s Going Viral perfectly resonates with the paranoiac and alienating nature of our current times – afflicted as we are today with COVID-19.
With an unconventional format that combines lecture and performance, Going Viral follows the international spread of this fictional disease to showcase how epidemics escalate in the globalised and technologically-interconnected world of the 21st century. While one male Caucasian traveller inadvertently circulates the pathogen while remaining immune to it, another female Indian researcher doggedly tracks his movements in order to develop a cure.
On the surface, Bye affably and wittily educates the audience on the science of epidemiology – the study of disease outbreaks – armed with only a handful of props: hand sanitiser, a bagful of liquorice all-sorts, a pair of tweezers; and a cutting-board, knife, onion and chilli. The show opens with an informal chat between Bye and the attendees, as he asks if they’re well and notes their responses. But while the stage deceptively appears to be confined to the simple grey circle of carpet taped down in the centre of the room, Bye spends the majority of his performance seated in the outskirts amongst the public.
One could argue that Going Viral is a one-man show. After all, Bye plays all characters onstage; delivering a series of monologues that are punctuated only by very subtle changes of sound, lighting (thanks to Katherine Williams) and seating position as he transitions between personae.
However, central to Going Viral is audience participation and interactivity – which Bye embeds into the structure of his performance. Throughout, he actively engages individual members in conversation and asks them to complete simple tasks – simple enough, mind you, that their responses do not overly affect the outcome of the plot – but in doing so, ultimately shares the spotlight so that everyone in the room (and watching online!) is conscious of one another’s presence. This, and the intimacy of the shared space are used to fantastic effect; replicating how hyperaware we become of each other during a pandemic for fear of contracting disease through proximity and bodily contact.
This inclusion of the audience, however, also functions to bolster the central theme of Going Viral. It doesn’t take too long before you realise that this unstoppable onslaught of infectious weeping resembles a devastating case of, perhaps… empathy? All monologues are also written in the third-person, with the indiscriminate pronoun ‘you’ that begins all sentences; directly asking audience members to project themselves onto Bye’s characters and imagine that they’re somebody else.
This seemingly basic reminder to care and think about one another is something sorely needed today—when the social realities of panic-buying, social distancing and xenophobia seem to drive us further and further away from each other every day. Bye implicates the media in spreading paranoia – another form of outbreak – and also inserts political commentary to highlight how existing power structures ensure that people experience epidemics unequally. Early in his performance, Bye announces that as a white, European man, “I’m basically a perfect storm of privilege!” He demonstrates throughout the performance that this manifests in privilege of access: to information, to resources and to the choice to care about others or not.
All these elements coalesce into an authentic, engaging and thought-provoking narrative experience that is equal parts humour and pathos. However, it concludes abruptly and somewhat uneasily – as if Bye is unsure of how to answer the difficult questions he provokes. Confronted with them myself in present circumstances, I can’t exactly fault him for this. The disquiet this produces is useful, however, in provoking thought about the current state of things and how they desperately need to change. Time proves Bye right, and five years on these unanswered questions linger in the air.
Daniel Bye’s performance of Going Viral can be viewed here.