Hook-up a Duck

by Jack Solloway

‘Butt or beak?’ A tall, hirsute wildman in a black leotard prances from seat to seat, thrusting his limbs under the noses of unsuspecting audience members. I try to avoid his gaze. ‘Sir! Butt or beak?’ Out of breath from prancing, he unfolds an arm from under his beard. The sleeve is covered in rubber ducks, as is the entirety of his one-piece.

The show is pay-what-you-want. And I hadn’t anticipated wanting to watch a fully grown man manipulate the public into kissing choice parts of a classic bathtub toy, but here we are.

‘Butt or beak? he says again, this time with urgency. ‘Butt or beak?’

After some initial confusion, we’d all cottoned on to the rules of the game. The first few were reluctant, unsure of what was being asked of them. By now the laughter had taken hold. To my dismay, someone had kicked off a bout of whoops and Oh-la-las.

I’m beginning to wish I’d been picked on earlier.

‘Butt or beak?’

Badling is the collective noun for ducks. I do not know this at the time.

The Edinburgh Fringe didn’t happen this year. But neither did anything else, so its non-event isn’t especially remarkable. Or rather it wouldn’t be, if it weren’t for the sheer scale of what exactly didn’t take place.

Over three million tickets went unsold. 250,000 punters did not take a punt on at least one show. There are no crowds to warrant clichés about people flocking in droves. And the Royal Mile – desperately empty rather than emptily desperate – didn’t play host to mimes, jugglers, improv troupes. No more Glee squads accosting passers-by with their highly choreographed, SWAT-team assaults in four-part harmony. No more flyers.

Only this isn’t entirely true. While group performances were canned for obvious reasons, solo street performers, most of them local, came to enjoy the newfound space and were in fact drawing audiences. The festival, amazingly, was able to keep on keeping on in a small way despite its closure.

One performer from Midlothian, who goes by the name of Todd Various, told the BBC: ‘This crowd is way better because it is a genuine audience making the choice to watch me. Normally people are muscled into watching what is closest to them.’ Add to this the hundreds of shows that were streamed online, hosted on alternative platforms like the Shedinburgh Festival (as it sounds: the Edinburgh Festival but broadcast entirely from a repurposed garden shed), and it’s easy to see the potential advantages of permanent, radical change to festival programming for coming years.

It’s no secret the Fringe is over-saturated. Every thesp for themself: an all-out war in a crowded field, where celebrity, gimmicks and a mercenary attitude are king. The four million-odd turnout each season is second only in size to the Olympic Games, and arguably more cut-throat in its competition but for a hair’s width of attention.

Brexit: Pursued by Bear
; Now That’s What I Call Brexit; Brexit Wounds; The Good, The Bad and The Brexit. There’s so much choice, so much variety. How do you compete?

(One way of making yourself known is to take a hostage. When I was younger but older than I care to admit, a human statue held out his hand for a handshake. Instinctively, I took it. He wouldn’t let go until I paid him.)

For yonks activists have campaigned against over-tourism in Edinburgh and the festival’s unsustainable growth – ‘growth for growth’s sake’, as the umbrella body Festivals Edinburgh put it. So it may not surprise you, then, that some are lapping up the ‘staycation’ tourism of a country too blasé about the pandemic to cancel its holiday plans altogether.

Fewer people travelled. Acres-worth of flyers remained a small forest. Our carbon footprint went from Godzilla’s Docs to the size of a toddler’s plimsole in a matter of months. Why not stream a portion of the programme online as standard? I’ll be glad to see the bubble burst on overpriced accommodation, especially if it means performers and Fringe-goers aren’t priced out from attending.

2021 is looking likely to be a ‘hybrid’ festival that incorporates a mix of in-person and digital shows. Of course, there’s no substitute for live performance. Even the terrible shows, which are – I think – the heart and soul of the festival. But these changes are not necessarily a bad thing if done right. For the festival to be sustainable for everyone, in the fullest sense, decisions are going to have to be made for the long-term.

Which brings us on to butt or beak.

I’d come to realise the genius of the game. It’s Catch-22, with little plastic waterfowls. Hook-up a duck. Smooch the custard curl of its sit-upon, and you’re publicly outed for your sexual depravity. Place a smacker on its quacker, and you’re a no-good prude. Either way you’re a stooge.

An old lady, decidedly thrilled by the dare of this venturesome role-play, theatrically clasps both hands about the toy’s arse and lands one with the unquestioning conviction of a romantic lead in a Richard Curtis film. I find it’s best not to overthink this.

Worst of all, though, is the cardinal sin of indecision. Audience members that clammed up, recoiled into their brains with a silent ‘No, thank you!’, momentarily pulled back the tarpaulin on the cringing hellscape that is comedy by peer pressure. I do not want to be responsible for this kind of introspection.

Like the randy septuagenarian in Seat 22C, I understand that there’s power in decisive action. Yet I know I must also give the people what they want.

I pucker up, resolved.