The Weird and the Wonderful

Somewhere in the massive arts trade fair that is the Fringe, there's a heart of pure invention. Si Hawkins finds it

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Come Look at the Baby
Published 06 Aug 2016

“I don’t think there are many places where you could put on a show like this. Apart from the Fringe.”

So muses Hannah Madsen, co-producer of this year’s most bewilderingly simple spectacle, Come Look at the Baby, and she has a point. It may often be said that the Edinburgh Fringe is business-obsessed these days, but look beyond the big posters and sponsors and there are still admirably open-minded artists at large, conjuring ideas that are wilfully uncommercial, conceptually jaw-dropping or a total logistical nightmare.

Madsen’s show, if you can call it that, happens every morning at Just the Tonic’s Old Foundry Room. As the name suggests, it’s just an anonymous baby, with a helper, doing what babies do; quite possibly sleeping or soiling itself, live onstage. Which may sound like a classic attention-seeking Fringe stunt, but actually poses an interesting question: why is it okay to stare at a baby, when staring at slightly older kids gets you added to a register and banned from the swings?   

“People might be in a café and just stare at someone else’s baby,” Madsen agrees. “As soon as you put that in a theatre, they start thinking about it more: ‘Why am I doing this? Why am I interested? Is it okay for the baby?’ That’s what we’re trying to explore.”

While that event is brilliantly simple, elsewhere on the artistic leftfield there are happenings of truly epic ambition. “I was looking forward to a lazy Fringe,” admits Bob Slayer, who oversees the Heroes venues. “Then this came through. I spent the next 24 hours coming up with reasons why not to do it. But it was pointless, it simply has to be done!”

He’s talking about Iraq Out and Loud, in which a huge tag team of Fringe types read the entire multi-million word Chilcot Report, all day, every day, in a shed. The idea actually arose from circuit legend Boothby Graffoe, who immediately opted out, perhaps wisely. “He spoke to Omid Djalili about who would be daft enough to implement such a project, and my name popped up.”

So it runs all night? What if nobody’s watching at 4am? ”It’ll be 24/7,” insists Slayer. “How else are we going to get it done? The pre-dawn shifts have free biscuits, so it’ll be easy to sort them out. 4am is the most fringe time at the Fringe.”

That’s the thing with wilfully original events like these; when the idea presents itself, true Fringers just feel bloody compelled. One man au fait with such lengthy affairs is Mark Watson, whose 24-hour stand-up marathons eventually progressed from Edinburgh to TV fundraisers for Comic Relief. He’s concocted several novel Fringe concepts, some actually involving novels, and for 2016 it’s the return of Edinborolympics, “a kind of drunk sports day for comics to let off steam,” he says.

Watson has done much to inspire his comedy contemporaries to think outside the box, and outside traditional venues, over the years. Indeed, before his first 24-hour show in 2004 “I hadn't even done a one-hour show yet,” he says. “I had the good fortune to come along at a time when the Fringe was becoming more commercial, more of a 'trade fair' than it had been in previous incarnations. So people were particularly receptive to anything which offered a backlash to that.”

Not that everyone understood. In 2009 he directed The Hotel, an acclaimed theatrical event in which the audience interact with a mythical inn, 'staffed' by the great and good of Fringe comedy. It was “one of my proudest achievements,” says Watson, who also recalls one attendee “being absolutely furious: 'You'll probably get a Fringe First for this, but it's shite. It's total shite.' In the end we did get a Fringe First. But his point stands. These things aren't for everyone.”

Innovative, immersive events can have a more positive, profound effect. Walking:Holding is Rosana Cade’s ongoing project in which strangers walk hand-in-hand along a prearranged route—this time in Leith—and hopefully find common ground.

“Celebrating differences is one of the key ideas,” explains the event’s producer, Sally Rose. “How it is to be in public with different types of people, if you’ve not held hands with an older person, or someone who’s the same sex as you, someone with a disability.”

The concept was developed via Cade’s mentorship with the late Adrian Howells, the brilliantly subversive immersive artist perhaps best known for uniting Jews and Palestinians by washing their feet, side by side. Walking:Holding is also unusually intimate.

“I’ve done it as an audience member and it does feel like quite a transformative thing to do, touch hands with somebody you don’t know,” says Rose. “I found it very moving.”

Inventive Fringe events can be particularly transformative for fellow artists. Come Look at the Baby is clearly unique, but Madsen does namecheck its more elaborate conceptual cousin: the now annual Fringe spectacle A Young Man Dressed as a Gorilla Dressed as an Old Man Sits Rocking in a Rocking Chair for 56 Minutes and Then Leaves…8 which is fairly self-explanatory.

Its costumed star prefers to remain anonymous, so we can only speculate as to what profound agenda lurks beneath, but such shows certainly inspire others. “You always come away from the Fringe with at least 10 ideas for what you want to do next year,” says Madsen.

Watson concurs. “I'd say the experimental side of the festival is in pretty good shape, if you know where to look. But there's always room for more. You should see what I'm planning for 2017.”

The mind boggles.

Rosana Cade: Walking:Holding Forest Fringe: Out of the Blue Drill Hall 17–20 August, times vary, slots every 15 mins