A reading of the Chilcot Report that started as a curious project ended up defining the true spirit of the Edinburgh Fringe.
A live, straight-up, non-stop 24/7 reading of all 12 volumes (and the executive summary, thank you very much) of the Chilcot Report into UK involvement in Iraq. By artists, volunteers, and any passing show-goers who’ve had a bit to drink. In a shed. Next to a bus. During the world’s biggest arts festival.
Accustomed as a Fringe audience may have become to bizarre and elaborate stunts in August, it was still a little difficult to know how to process this one at first. Was it an endurance test, a publicity stunt, a protest, a piece of performance art or an educational journey? As it turned out, over several days, it was all of these things – and yet still not quite that simple.
Produced by the venerable Bob Slayer and Omid Djalili (who were supported by a crack team of volunteers keeping events in line) and sited in a six seater shed next to the Blundabus on South College Street, the idea was straightforward. On the hour, every hour – from the kick-off at 6pm on 8 Aug to the tear-stained, euphoric conclusion at 2.45pm on 20 Aug after 284 and three-quarter hours – a motley tribe of readers would take turns reading Chilcot in slots of about ten minutes each. (In reality, those slots were variable depending on numbers in the shed. The record is held by the guy who did five hours straight dressed in a giraffe onesie.)
Initially the interest seemed to be mostly focused on which performers were booked to arrive, and observing the readers arriving for the pre-booked slots, the general mood at the beginning seemed to be one of cautious amusement.
"I saw people leave in tears..."
Returning to the shed at regular intervals over the course of a week at various times of the day and night, speaking to the readers and volunteers, it was only a couple of days until an oddly celebratory mood began to emerge. People started dropping by just to ask about what was going on, and how they could get involved, with seemingly no celebrity spotting on the agenda. Assistant producer Sorcha, who spent a lot of time outside organising the changeovers and educating the masses, had seen groups of strangers exchanging phone numbers after leaving the shed, such was the intense nature of the strange group bonding experience (rumours of a dating agency for participants called Netflix and Chilcot appear, thankfully, to have been somewhat exaggerated.)
Personally, I saw people leave in tears, and a woman who kept coming back because she wanted to hear someone read out loud about what had happened to Dr David Kelly (the weapons expert who committed suicide after advising the government that Iraq had no WMDs in 2003). I also stood waiting with a history professor and a drama student, who both felt like the whole thing served as a public indictment of the leaders involved.
After some light banter on the @IraqOutLoud Twitter feed, Livingston MP Hannah Bardell turned up to her reading with homemade biscuits. Having done no public speaking since my Drama GCSE, I ended up reading several times. My experience was probably representative, in that the outside noise absorbed through the shed walls. My first reading was soundtracked by excited children at a show on the Blundabus and, if you’ll forgive the pretension, it was almost like a Greek chorus against the material I was reading – the forensic layout of chaos in Basra because no proper plans were in place after the invasion.
The second, in the evening, was even more appositely set to the backdrop of the bins being emptied outside, giving the impression the shed was under siege whilst four solemn Scottish women listened to me lay out the UN’s entreaties for the investment of Iraq’s oil money to be handled by them “to avoid the impression that the conflict was motivated by oil.”
Even my last go, at two in the morning on day 11, had a strangely respectful grace to it, despite the over-excited Australian drama student thumping on the table to emphasise the start of a new paragraph. According to Sorcha, at 4am one morning a cardiologist passing the shed on his early morning run volunteered to step into the breach when the booked readers went AWOL, and started coming past every morning after that.
"One of the strongest statements of common endeavour at the Fringe"
Bob Slayer felt the whole project had been embraced by Fringe-goers, performers and the media alike, given that the event had only come together in a fortnight or so prior to the opening reading. The team of volunteers and assistants on the Blundabus remained enthusiastic and positive about the enterprise, even at three in the morning when they’d had to carry out an emergency reading due to lack of available sober volunteers. The whole 12-day epic was filmed: there’s talk of using it as an art installation for what Bob Slayer describes as “bearing witness to things that maybe the leaders thought we would ignore.”
And in the end, the glorious mess of the Fringe seems like a fitting place for this, whatever our first impressions: in a small corner of the most diverse and vibrant gathering you can imagine, comedians, revellers and the occasional giraffe grouping together to bear witness to one of the greatest atrocities in our collective living memory. A man outside the shed reminded me of the legendary two-million strong Stop The War protest in 2003, sadly recounting that nobody had thought in the face of such strong opposition that the war would go ahead, “but they did it anyway.”
They did. They did do it anyway. But in a sweltering hot garden shed next to a bus, hundreds of people took time out of celebrating and creating and generally going about their business to hold them to account for it. All two million words. That is power. That, you may be led to conclude, is how you use your freedom to speak the truth. And the triumph isn’t really that people could keep reading for twelve days, but that they’d want to. It may have been messy, precarious at points, distressing at others and downright bizarre throughout, but Iraq Out & Loud became one of the strongest statements of common endeavour at the Fringe.
Iraq Out & Loud, Heroes @ The Shed by the BlundaBus, run ended.