Panic spreads faster than any disease. We’re fixated on epidemics, headlines swiftly seizing on the latest predicted outbreak. Bird flu. Swine flu. Ebola. In films like Contagion, we obsess over possible virus scenarios, getting an adrenaline kick from imagining our species’ impending destruction. It’s an oddly exciting strain of hypochondria.
This is just one facet of Going Viral, which plays on that shared fascination. Daniel Bye’s new show is about the spread of more than simply disease; it’s also about the transmission of ideas, emotions, hashtags. At its centre is a fictional outbreak. On a flight from Kampala to London, every passenger bursts into uncontrollable tears – every passenger save one, who’s oddly immune. Soon, this new crying plague has spread across the world, sending everyone into convulsions of sobs. A scientist frantically researches the mysterious ailment, knocking up against dead end after dead end, while the unaffected Patient Zero takes flight from an irate global media.
There’s a hell of a lot contained within this metaphor. As well as the science around disease and its spread – explained in little informative segments between chapters in the main narrative – Bye takes in a host of other themes. It’s no accident that the disease in his story looks like a mass outpouring of empathy. There’s a suggestion of how we think about feelings, how emotions as well as viruses can be contagious. To tackle the crying outbreak, the government proposes an “individual wellbeing campaign”, a bitterly believable policy that speaks volumes about the attitudes of our leaders. You are responsible for your own happiness and increasingly your own health.
The imaginary disease also recalls old diagnoses of hysteria, a word dismissively used by the British government in Bye’s story. Thanks to similar prejudices, the affliction is taken more seriously in some quarters than others, while the response to it pinpoints global inequalities. In the UK, people are segregated and quarantined, the privileged taking the precautions needed to insulate themselves. Elsewhere, the illness wreaks unabated havoc. And all the while there’s the panicked buzz of the media in the background, spreading a different kind of virus.
Performing alone, Bye tells this story from within the audience, who are seated on all sides. Moving from chair to chair, he imitates the spread of the viruses he is talking about, reminding us at the same time that we are surrounded by others. At one point, a bottle of hand sanitiser is passed around, Bye pointing out that we might not know what our neighbours are carrying around with them. One man blows his nose. Everyone turns to look at him. An itchy eye or slight sniffle suddenly seems disproportionately ominous.
As I said, there’s a lot here. There’s a danger, though, that it’s just too much. Bye is as engaging and affable a presence as ever, and the ideas being explored are rich and complex, but this piece feels less fully realised than its predecessor How to Occupy an Oil Rig. The science – fascinating and brilliantly explained (in one instance with liquorice allsorts) – could be given more space, while some of the themes are only lightly touched upon. Its infectious ideas, though, leave behind plenty to think about.