Instructions for Border Crossing opens with fear. “What are you afraid of?” Daniel Bye genially asks the audience member he has invited on stage for a game of Jenga. It’s a question posed at a time when there is plenty to be fearful about: nuclear war, fascism, the destruction of the NHS, climate change, terrorism, super-bugs, Brexit. Look at the news and take your pick.
Bye is afraid of bees, he tells us. He’s afraid of crowds. He’s afraid of not making a difference in the world. But he’s also afraid of doing the things that might be involved in making a difference in the world. There’s risk involved in making change. Risk, and sacrifice.
The show departs from this feeling of inadequacy, of failing to live up to a radical example, of not really wanting to leave behind the comfort of privilege. It’s a gesture that, at least to me, extends a hand while landing a kick in the gut. “Yes,” I want to cry out. “Yes, I feel that too.” I want to change things – I try to change things – but I’m also too cautious, too hesitant, too comfortable.
The whole show riffs on that complex mix of complicity, complacency, fear and the desire to do something. It assumes (probably rightly in most cases, though in a way that still nags at me afterwards) a certain level of privilege in its audiences. What might it take for us (whoever “us” is) to slough off that privilege and actually put ourselves on the line?
The line in question is literal, sharply defined and heavily policed. While it opens out into broader questions of change-making and radical action, the immediate subject of Bye’s show is national borders – a subject that’s always politically charged, but particularly so in this moment of EU negotiations, Trump and the ongoing refugee crisis. Bye starts out with a clear ideological position, suggesting that borders inherently reinforce inequalities, but his performance worries away more subtly at the ways in which these boundaries between nations inculcate authority and obedience.
In the cordoned-off island of Hannah Sibai’s set design, Bye sits at a table. He polices his own borders, allowing audience participants in and out of the carefully constructed world of his performance. The marketing copy’s description of the show as unstable is a half-truth: sure, it relies on the compliance of volunteers, but it’s a compliance that’s meticulously cultivated and contained within fixed outlines. The analogy with our compliance as citizens doesn’t need to be pressed.
Bye, deceptively affable as always, chats to the audience about obscure performance artist and activist Edward Shorter. This mythical figure, he tells us, has written a series of event score-style instructions for interventions at border control. The show, as he frames it, is his tribute to Shorter, his attempt to emulate this too-good-to-be-true figure, who rejects private property and lives the stateless existence that he radically espouses. With help from the audience, Bye performs watered-down versions of these instructions – rehearsals, perhaps, for real-world actions.
In between these episodes of interaction and informal addresses to the audience, Bye tells the story of a teenage girl who has rejected her British citizenship and is attempting to re-enter the country. She’s left behind all the comfort that Bye struggles to renounce in a protest against the treatment of immigrants, eventually landing herself in a detention centre. But is anyone even watching?
The show’s ideas are contained as much in its form, delicately crafted with director Alex Swift and dramaturg Sarah Punshon, as in its content. In some ways it contains its audience, lulling us into acquiescence and holding us inside its borders. But in other ways it pulls apart cracks, gestures towards openings. Defiant audience members could challenge the show’s structure, enacting the sort of disobedience that’s repeatedly talked about. But Bye’s the sort of performer who makes you want to make the show work; cannily, his is the sort of smiling authority that doesn’t feel like authority at all.
Instructions for Border Crossing ends with change. It feels churlish to give away much more about what happens in between, in that journey from fear to action. Bye’s is a show that carves out space for thought, for questioning, and it’s best approached with as little foreknowledge or expectation as possible. It’s a show with gaps and question marks and dangling provocations. And it questions its own efficacy, its own ability to actually change anything, while somehow clinging to an optimistic belief in the power of stories.
Instructions for Border Crossing was on at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. Click here for more details.