Science and technology top the bill at Edinburgh Fringe 2023
Image credit: Christoffer Brekne
From algorithms to climate change, Covid to ethics, science, engineering and technology have inspired a host of shows.
The Edinburgh Fringe is back with a blast this summer. But the annual explosion of creativity has a new element. Gone are gloomy stage sets with heavy red curtains and an antique writing desk. At this first full-scale Fringe since Covid-19, digital screens make up the scenery and petri dishes the props. From experimental theatre addressing the climate crisis to the story of medical fraudster Elizabeth Holmes, there are more than 50 science and technology shows exerting their force of attraction. This year, science is topping the bill.
Why has this collision of arts and science happened? Neil Harris, who’s performing his comedy Codebreaker (14-26 August, Greenside) about cracking the Enigma cipher, says science brings new chemistry. “There are hundreds of traditional shows by some exceptionally talented comedians, but I wanted to create a more unique show so I started using my skills as a computer programmer.”
Scientists have turned showmen. Edinburgh’s own Kevin Quantum was a physicist before moving into magic, training under international illusionists Penn and Teller. It began when he went on Faking It, a popular TV show. The premise was to train someone in the opposite profession to what they already did – a cellist becomes a DJ, a sheepshearer a hairdresser.
“Back in 2005 they took a quiet, mild-mannered scientist and trained him to be a magician. And that’s how I got into science. I was that scientist,” says Quantum. This year he brings his Momentum magical science show to the Fringe (4-27 August, Assembly Rooms). The judges on Britain’s Got Talent described him as, “a mixture of magic, science and derring-do, you're like a sexy Doctor Who!" Science is still a key ingredient of his shows, with themes from the Bermuda Triangle to gravity. Be sure to stay to the very end. The finale is a mind-boggling blindfolded stunt featuring a Newton’s cradle and nine flaming cannon balls.
There are more stunts in family show Doktor Kaboom and the Wheel of Even More Science! (2-27 August, Pleasance Courtyard). You would be forgiven for thinking this is one Fringe science show you’ve seen before. The Doktor wears goggles, makes steam and bubbles appear from oddly shaped bottles, and puts on a fake German accent. But there’s joy to be had in learning about chemical reactions and how to make a hovercraft at home through such hilarious madness. And if there’s any unpleasant side effects, you can always book an appointment with St Doctor's Hospital (2-28 August, Assembly) by improvisation specialists The Free Association, inspired by TV medical dramas from Grey's Anatomy to Casualty and ER. You can guarantee there’ll be nothing predictable.
The Fringe is most renowned for its comedy. But Harris believes it’s become more difficult to be funny. “I think it's getting increasingly hard to write an uplifting show with the current political climate, but science is one of the few areas that you can celebrate,” he says.
Biochemist turned comedian Matt Hobs gathered together a chemist, medic, archaeologist and AI expert to create Stand Up Science (3-27 August, Pear Tree). After premiering at Oxford’s Natural History Museum, he brought the show to the Fringe for the first time last year. Following its success, this year he’s bringing a second show about his obsession with the Moon landing, Moontalker (3-27 August, Laughing Horse).
But even Dr Hobs might not have examined the murkier side of space missions. Glass Ceiling Beneath Stars (2-27 August, Pleasance Dome) is the story of Mae Jemison, the first African-American astronaut, and her co-astronaut Jan Davis, the first woman to accompany her husband into space. Both were on board the 1992 flight of the Endeavour STS-47, the 50th Nasa Space Shuttle mission and the Endeavour’s second flight. But despite these women’s groundbreaking achievements, back on Earth the only thing anyone wanted to know were the salacious details - if the married couple had sex in the cramped conditions on board. This five-performer play (large by Fringe standards) brings MeToo 21st-century eyes to investigate sexism at Nasa in the 1990s, reflecting current discussions about women in STEM.
There’s a very different woman’s story in Optimistic: Elizabeth Holmes (4-27 August, Zoo Southside) This verbatim play uses trial exhibits, interviews, and text messages from Holmes herself, exploring the mind of the medical fraudster who claimed her technology would revolutionise medicine, saying a single drop of blood could be used for up to 800 tests. People believed her, and she defrauded investors of millions of dollars. Writer and performer Sarah Deller portrays the life of Elizabeth Holmes, adopting her distinctive mannerisms and famously affected voice.
Deller says, “I've been researching this play for three years and the actual words spoken by Elizabeth Holmes and her acquaintances still amaze me. There was never a question of writing new material for this play – not only are the real words more bizarre and telling than anything I could have written, but in creating a play about a famous liar, it felt wrong to use anything but the actual truth.”
Science has had its fair share of despicable characters. The Quality of Mercy: Concerning the Life and Crimes of Dr Harold Frederick Shipman (4-26 August, theSpace), written and performed by Edwin Flay, grandson of Shipman victim Rennee Lacey, intelligently interrogates our attitudes towards death, justice and compassion. “I’d like the audience to come away with a greater awareness… I’d like them to think about the difference between voluntary euthanasia and non-voluntary euthanasia, and whether or not we as a society are having the difficult conversations about death that we need to. To ponder how evil can thrive under the mask of concern and how a professed desire for justice can be a fig leaf for a lust for vengeance,” says Flay.
But if there are villains, there are also heroes. Jane Westhead leads Darwin in Edinburgh, a theatrical walk around the city in the footsteps of medical student Darwin who came there in 1825, six years before he set foot on HMS Beagle.
The climate crisis is a rich seam for theatre makers, its urgency running through many Fringe shows. First seen at the Cop26 International Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, experimental art-rock company Klanghaus’s Darkroom (3-27 August, Summerhall) is a climate emergency wake-up call for an audience of just one. For 20 minutes, a sole person sits alone in utter darkness. “Being alone in the dark invites you to imagine being alone with a complete climate breakdown. It brings home the power of nature, the powerlessness of a single human in the absence of society,” says collaborator Catherine Rowett of the University of East Anglia. Klanghaus worked with scientists from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University.
Cop26 is also the inspiration behind Crash and Burn (13-22 August, theSpace), the story of a Scottish oil baron on a jet bound for the Glasgow climate conference. While on board the tycoon faces an ultimatum: confess to your gas-guzzling guilt, or crash.
Putting people in challenging places, on or off stage, is a Fringe tradition. In multi-award- winning Danish dance company Himherandit’s Mass Effect (15-26 August, Summerhall), the entire audience is witness to, and then invited to be part of, an extraordinary human experiment which asks the question, ‘How far can the body go?’ Five dancers use their bodies as the experimental material, pushing themselves to their physical limits, to near-euphoric levels, until they become exhausted. But they keep going. Moving beyond exhaustion, they find a second wind, continuing to the extreme. Just as they’re about to collapse, local community members join them on stage, pumping up the energy, willing them to go on, and on, and on.
Artistic director Andreas Constantinou says, “Mass Effect will make you want to jump out of your seat and join on stage, to pulse, pump, move and unite with the dancers. This is a performance about resilience and endurance and how the energy and power of people can make us transcend and go beyond our own limitations.”
The effect of technology on our relationship with each other is another strong thread. Finnish two-person dance performance A Couple of Humans (2-20 August, Summerhall) explores how we communicate with each other in an increasingly digital world. Real life couple Riikka and Antti Puumalainen use choreography, sound design and live projection to comment on how technology has changed their relationship since Covid. Puumalainen explains: “We were inspired to create A Couple of Humans while experiencing the lockdown during the pandemic. At the same time it was obvious that social interaction had dramatically changed due to the influence of social media. The big question behind all of this is how it affects human values and humanity as a whole.”
Without Sin (2-27 August, Summerhall) by Dublin-based Unqualified Design Studio, a collective of architects, engineers, artists and performers who devise interactive and participatory experiences, also addresses post-Covid relationships using science as the means. Two people at a time enter a contemporary-style confession box. State-of-the-art technology is used to create an audio-visual feedback loop that responds to audience voices. Linked via headphones, participants are guided into conversation using a deck of cards to create a story together, inviting you to consider how our relationships have evolved in recent years – what's been lost, what we've found, and what it means to live together after being forced in lockdown to live apart.
Inevitably, AI features in performances. Distant Memories of the Near Future (2-27 August, Summerhall) imagines a time, quite soon, where algorithms have solved romance and artificial intelligence is commonplace. Five interlocking love stories, with characters such as space miners and tech moguls, are explored not only by writer and performer David Head but also by an AI performer on stage, powered by technology from the Synthesia AI video-creation tool. Head says he’s, “working to show audiences the theatricality of the future.”
The ethics of replicating human form are also the subject of Self Actually (13-14 August, theSpace), a play about cloning. A man is incarcerated in a room with somebody who appears physically very different, but identical to him in all other ways. One is the original, the other a clone. But which is which? On a table in the middle of the room is a red button – a classic science play prop. When the button is pressed, the original will be known.
Less conventional science-on-stage content is produced by earth scientist and musician Steve Garrett, who collaborated with the British Antarctic Survey to create The Song of the Ice (15-16 August, ArtSpace), a music, animation, sound and projection piece about Antarctica. “As a geologist, geophysicist and guitarist, I’ve always been interested in the links between music and science,” says Garrett. “A different musical theme represents each continent as it breaks away - first Africa, then India, then Australia, then South America, with the circumpolar current and ice sheet forming. Africa and South America share a common theme as they were once connected, whilst India moves quickly, as does the continent itself. Australia has a didgeridoo-like drone creating a dreamlike effect. I also used microseismic data - ice-quakes - from a fast-flowing major glacier draining the Antarctic plateau. I converted the data into sound files which were processed in the recording studio.
“I hope this piece tells the story of the Antarctic ice sheet in a different way, highlighting its long history, dynamic nature, beauty and role as witness to the changing state of our planet.”
You have to hunt through the Fringe programme to discover these sparkling science shows, hidden in Theatre, Music and Comedy. There’s no separate Science and Technology category, as there is for Spoken Word or Cabaret. But with the number of STEM performances increasing year on year, and their popularity skyrocketing, it can’t be long until they get their very own section.
Edinburgh Fringe runs from 4-28 August. Details of all shows at www.edfringe.com.
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