There is a curious three-way conversation at this year’s Fringe. In one corner is nihilism, a foreboding sense that we are, shall we say, screwed; that there’s no way out. It’s there in Ontroerend Goed’s All That’s Wrong, in Morning by Simon Stephens and in Rob Drummond’s Bullet Catch. Then, as Andrew Haydon has astutely pointed out, there’s the notion of recovery – a long, slow and rocky process - as found in Caroline Horton’s Mess and Blink by Phil Porter.
Thankfully, the third competitor in this forward-looking rumble is more optimistic. It wants to use the current situation as a springboard to something else, something better. It was to reinvent the world and rewrite the social contract so that kindness governs our behaviour, not suspicion or fear.
What’s interesting is that the two shows I’ve seen that best exemplify this are both performance lectures: Daniel Bye’s The Price of Everything and Jenna Watt’s Flâneurs. I’ve always thought the term ‘performance lecture’ a little odd. Like Miranda Hart (seriously, Matt, Miranda Hart?), part of me just wants to snap ‘It is a lecture. It just is a lecture,’ since lectures are – and, yes, this is inherent within the form – a mode of performance already. Performance lectures don’t look all that different to TEDx Talks or the Royal Society’s Christmas lectures, but the word ‘performance’ somehow makes the whole seem palatable. It takes the edge off. We’re having fun and learning.
Performance lectures also look similar to theatrical monologues in the mould of Mike Daisy or Spalding Gray. The difference, I think, is that they don’t invoke the performer’s subjectivity in quite the same way. They use the trappings of academia – slides and demonstrations and the like – for a semblance of objectivity, so that anecdotes recounting personal experience are primarily used to exemplify and stand-in for something wider. And yet, you could probably smack the term performance lecture on The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs without loss (or gain).
In Edinburgh, both Bye and Watt are using the form in order to preach peace. They use remarkably similar routes, starting from the world as it is and moving towards something utopian and reinvigorated. Bye begins by wittily dissecting the notion of monetary value. He canters through a survey of what things are worth – the elements, organs and raw materials that make up your body, the arts, Fernando Torres and, crucially, milk. With a hint of Dave Gorman, he talks us through an eBay auction for an air guitar that eventually sold for over £800. With an infinite stockpile imaginary friends and the like, Bye claims to have made more than £6000 by, as he puts it, ‘fleecing idiots’.
He didn’t of course, but it nails the point – obvious, but easily overlooked – that value isn’t fixed and that just one person willing to pay over the odds is the motor of inflation. Watt, meanwhile, starts by recounting random attack on her friend Jeremy, on a train, in front of other passengers, who did nothing to intervene. She takes us through her own experiences of Edinburgh in terms of the nooks and crannies, shadowy alleys and pedestrian subways that she’s afraid of: ‘The geography of our daily lives is plagued with violence,’ she says.
Both Watt and Bye want to reclaim the world, to regain control, civility and basic human respect. Bye tried out some random acts of kindness – buying coffee for the person behind him in the Caffè Nero queue, littering a shopping mall with £20 notes and instructions to spend it on a gift for a stranger – and found his faith in fellow man rather dinted. He tells a story, always careful to nod to its fiction, in which transactions are based on giving, fairly, respectfully and gratefully, in the knowledge that one day the ‘favour’ will be repaid. I use quotation marks because Bye’s system is ultimately one of trade without currency and it is no less liable to be exploited. But that’s not the spirit. It shows just how small the step would be if everyone took it together.
Watt’s society of flâneurs – proactive bystanders all ready and willing – works similarly. Like Bye’s system it hinges on community, on everyone jumping on board, so that we all know any intervention will be backed up by others. In both utopian visions, there’s strength in numbers.
In terms of performance, Bye and Watt both exude gentleness. He uses charm and humour, she uses delicacy and charm. You listen because they’re worth listening to and, moreover, because they’re leading by example. Watts admits to her own anxieties about stepping in and how she’s trying to overcome them; Bye’s good deeds work likewise. If they can do it, you think, well so can I.
However, both shows also recognise it’s not enough just to talk utopia into existence. Bye dishes out milk and hands over £20 for an audience member to start another chain of good deeds. Watt passes round membership badges for us to wear, testifying to our willingness to weigh in. Sure, they’re small gestures, but better a small gesture than no gesture at all.
It reminds me of something that Chris Goode said (as so often) about theatre that says and theatre that does. Flâneurs and The Price of Everything do. They might not succeed and they might not overturn the order of things, but they cause small ripples, real ripples, and send you out into the world with better intentions.