If it weren’t for the down-at-the-heels environment of the Camden People’s Theatre, Daniel Bye could be pitching an idea for a start-up: with his swish projector and MacBook, his horn-rimmed glasses, checked shirt and slightly ill-at-ease stage presence. His only other props are several bottles of milk and plastic glasses, enough for every member of the audience.
The show begins with a political discussion about the budget cuts, with particular reference to the cuts to the arts. Bye pours out a third of a pint and explains that the average price of that milk is how much the average person pays in taxation towards the arts. He proceeds to pour this quantity of milk out for each member of the audience. It’s a very neat trick to find a physical manifestation for a political point and the analogy continues to pay dividends throughout the show as he drinks other people’s milk for them (“That’s yours” as he downs a glass) and later asks audience members to come up and take a glass, giving nothing in return other than a smile and a thank you, if they feel like it.
The significance of milk goes beyond that of kindness, a theme that Bye’s discussion of value starts to gravitate towards. The Free Milk Act was introduced by Atlee’s administration in 1946 as a source of nutrition for schoolchildren and abolished by Margaret Thatcher in 1971 when she was Health Secretary, earning her the nickname Milk Snatcher. Milk therefore becomes both a metaphor and an actual example of the policies of a fairer society introduced by Atlee’s administration (including the welfare state and the NHS): the very infrastructure being chipped away at by the Coalition government.
The TED talk element of the show is pushed further when Bye, as a theatre artist, claims to have conducted a series of anthropological/sociological experiments into the subject of value: selling an air-guitar on E-Bay, leaving envelopes containing twenty pounds and a request to buy something for someone you don’t know and text Bye to tell him what happened, etc.
The accounts of these various attempts to establish first how stupidity distorts value and later how difficult it is to instigate acts of kindness in today’s cynical society form the backbone of Bye’s lecture-performance. Form begins to reflect content though, as he begins to examine the philosophical underpinnings behind the whole endeavour. Why has he made the show? Why have we come to see it? What are we going to get out of it for ourselves? What is its value? The design elements suggest that we are in receipt of some kind of “truth”: we are receiving ideas that the speaker believes in and his beliefs are based on empirical evidence of some kind. Then again, we’re in a theatre: a space where we are frequently in receipt of fictions or “lies”. Are Bye’s stories of greater value when they are based on truth or when they are fictions he has gone to the trouble of creating for our entertainment? What does what we are prepared to believe about others tell us about ourselves as individuals and as a society as a whole?
Bye frequently places himself in the position of the unreliable narrator throughout the show. He plays around with these kinds of tensions and uses them to make several points. While his arguments of always intelligent, impassioned and astute, it did feel that the performance’s dramaturgical structure had rigged the deck a little to get the audience where Bye needed us in order to make his points. As the narrative becomes more and more fantastical and Bye asks us to imagine his home town of Middlesbrough transformed through the power of human kindness into a glorious post-financial utopia, it becomes clear that Bye is here not to deliver a ready-packaged objective “truth” to us but to provoke and stimulate through subjective fictions, even if he has to cheat a little to do it. The Price of Everything makes an eloquent theatrical argument for making space for such fictions.