Edinburgh Fringe 2012
The Price of Everything
Northern Stage at St Stephens
Festival: Edinburgh Fringe
Erudite, charming and occasionally angry Daniel Bye delivers a performance lecture – not, he reminds us, a proper play – searching for the reasons behind why we assign value to things we can neither sell nor buy, and questioning why we find genuine kindness so hard to comprehend. Wise and topical, Bye’s words are highly pertinent in an age of austerity, budget cuts and a government determining the cost, if not the value, of everything.
Very few shows clearly map out for their audience how much fun they’ll be able to extract from proceedings – even fewer display this with a graph. But Daniel Bye’s performance lecture is very much about attempting to measure and quantify things that can’t really be measured, so his graph (showing fun enjoyed against time passing) is both unusual and fitting.
What’s also unusual is Bye’s offer to each audience member: a free glass of milk. He offers a third of a pint, or roughly seventeen-and-a-half pence worth (a sixth of a pint of soy milk for lactose intolerant or vegan audience members). The gesture comes not from the goodness of Bye’s heart (although goodness of heart is an important theme of the performance), but serves as a visual aid. Seventeen-and-a-half pence is roughly the amount of tax each UK taxpayer invests in the arts per week; roughly the price of a glass of milk. The arts then generate roughly two glasses of milk for each glass invested. By contrast, Bye points out the roughly twenty glasses invested in the NHS per taxpayer per week.
This could all descend into cheap point-scoring against politicians in favour of defending arts spending via the Arts Council, but instead turns into a satire on the very fact that people construct financial arguments along the lines Bye is describing. He seems bewildered that, ‘in a civilised country’, society hesitates to fund artists and should logically dismantle the NHS because it’s financially unviable and counter-productive. Despite Bye’s anger and social mission (in the preachy sense), he treads a fine line between preaching and gently teasing his audience into agreeing with him.
That graph is generally accurate in showing a greater level of fun in the first half hour, but that’s only because Bye takes a more serious, sombre tone (he even asks for a ‘sombre’ lighting state). While the first half is, on the whole, light and chirpy, the second goes deeper into the human side of Bye’s subject. Through the second half, Bye resembles a ganglier, Northern Ronnie Corbett, taking forever to reach the end of his story but entertaining and reinforcing his point all along the way.
As a performance lecture, the staging is stark and simple – a projector, a table and lots of glasses of milk. That simplicity reflects Bye’s argument in some way too, as he asks why we feel a need to associate acts of kindness with some deeper meaning or intention. We can be deeply cynical and distrustful about getting something for nothing, as Bye’s loose narrative demonstrates. Having reassured his audience that he won’t be doing any acting, Bye maintains a natural and direct presentational style which feels completely natural and unforced. His approachability keeps the show from veering too far into the lecture side of things, and allows the wide, scary issue of economics to stay accessible to a non-expert audience.
Ultimately an engaging and thought-provoking experience, The Price of Everything is a gentle but questioning hour with a charming, eloquent and intelligent host.
Here’s a link to a YouTube video of Daniel Bye performing a work-in-progress version of The Price of Everything at TEDxYork. This is the beginning of the show, and contains what you might consider spoilers in terms of some of the more ‘meta’ elements of the performance lecture.