Reviewed today: Alan Davie: Beginning Of A Far-Off World, Grace Petrie: Butch Ado About Nothing, Mark Nelson: "Comedian", Pavel Haas Quartet, Raphael - Magister Raffaello, Snort.
Three years away, but we’re getting back into the old habits again. Spending one morning at the Queens Hall for one of their excellent value concerts: trying to stop myself from yelling out my site URL during quiet bits for the benefit of people listening live on Radio 3: booking cheap seats in the upper level off to the side, and then being surprised when it turns out we can only see two and a half of the four people on stage.
Those four people are the Pavel Haas Quartet, and today’s programme – available online for the next month or so – is a nicely contrasting trio of string quartets from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. They open with Haydn‘s String Quartet in G Major, which is probably the most traditional of the three for want of a better word, even though there’s a lot of playfulness in there – unexpected changes in tempo, and a third movement that doesn’t so much end as give up with a bit of a shrug.
They’re a Czech quartet (named after a composer who died at Auschwitz), and the home fixture today is a performance of Martinu’s String Quartet no 7. Composed just after World War II, it feels conspicuously modern in the context of this programme, showing a willingness to break the rules of tonality, harmony and form that Haydn was working within. And the final piece acts as a bridge between the two time periods – Schubert’s String Quartet in G Major (no relation), double the length of the other two and full of moments of high drama. The Pavel Haas Quartet play all three pieces with fabulous precision, although I do find myself initially distracted by violinist Veronika Jarůšková’s habit of taking a huge breath at the beginning of each musical phrase, like she thinks a violin is a wind instrument.
We do try to find new things in Edinburgh too, you understand. And even though last year’s visit was a bit truncated, we found a place that was new to us: Dovecot Studios, the home of Scottish tapestry work. Their show about pop artist Archie Brennan was an absolute revelation, and made us keen to go back in future years. It turns out we were spoiled last year: instead of one big exhibition about a tapestry specialist, here we get two smaller shows about artists who dabbled in tapestry for a small portion of their careers.
Alan Davie: Beginning Of A Far-Off World is the more personal of the two, which is only fair given the artist's connection with Dovecot – though it’s only a small one. Born in 1920 and living to the age of 94, he’s dabbled in most art disciplines at various points in his life: painting, drawing, even free jazz (if you can disinfect a pair of headphones to your liking, you can listen to a couple of squeakybonk numbers he recorded in the early seventies). He collaborated with Dovecot around the turn of the century, providing a couple of designs that the in-house weavers did an excellent job in realising. The exhibition as a whole is fine, especially in the way it pairs up works from different periods in his long artistic career: but on a personal level I was expecting more than two tapestries, and end up a bit disappointed.
Though not as disappointed as I was with the other exhibition, Raphael - Magister Raffaello. It would be a coup if Dovecot had got their hands on a set of original Raphaels to display during the festival for his 500th birthday, and rest assured that isn’t what they’ve done. Instead, they’ve bought in a terrible multimedia display with a patronising audio commentary that you have little to no control over. I don’t know if the voiceover has been fed through an online translator or is being read by a robot – or possibly both – but after a while it becomes unbearable. The one bright spot at the end is, again, the Dovecot connection: as part of the birthday celebrations, they’ve taken one of the cartoons the artist originally made for a tapestry, and created a new one based on a detail from the artwork. It’s a lovely thing to see, but it doesn’t quite rescue the mess of an exhibition that leads up to it. I think in the future, when we return to Dovecot – and we will – we’ll check first to see if it’s specifically a tapestry exhibition.
I talked a bit yesterday about online comedy that got us through the pandemic. Online music, surprisingly, was less successful. There were some great specially filmed gigs by the likes of Nick Cave, Jarvis Cocker and Róisín Murphy that were put out over the internet rather than TV or cinemas, and they worked just fine even though in each case they were playing to an audience of zero. But I found streamed living room gigs never seemed to generate any excitement... except one. Grace Petrie performed an online benefit for the Bush Hall venue from her house, and refused to dial down her passion and enthusiasm one bit: the result was glorious, and you missed it, sorry.
We’ve been trying to see her live ever since, as things slowly went towards the vague direction of back to normal-ish, but it’s not been easy. A gig at the newly-benefited Bush Hall just before Christmas had to be cancelled because of a sudden surge in infections. Still, now Petrie is doing a run at the Fringe, so we can see her today. But Butch Ado About Nothing doesn’t feature any singing at all. Instead, she’s telling the story of how she worked out who she was. Finding out that the concept of ‘gay’ existed when she was nine helped explain a lot of the weirdness she’d been feeling since childhood: but you can only get away with being called a tomboy for so long, and then you need to think a bit more deeply about your identity. And that took even longer.
The show's listed in the Fringe programme under Comedy, but although Petrie comes on stage wielding a microphone and has a lot of decent gags, this isn’t a standup performance. It’s a beautifully delivered monologue (very visibly directed as such, by Petrie’s partner Molly Naylor) which has a carefully considered structure. You think it’s going to end at one point, at the point where Petrie has happily come to terms with her identity – and then she pulls back and takes you into the second half of the show, which looks at the way gender identity issues have been exploited by people with other agendas over the last decade. It’s a carefully considered and - again – passionate statement of how she feels, which admits that she may not have all the answers but it’s possible that the next generation might. It’s an electrifying hour of political polemic that’s self-identifying as comedy because the language hasn't caught up with it yet, and I’m all for it.
Mark Nelson, on the other hand, tells us up front "I’m not going to talk about the trans issue, because I’m not fuckin' stupid and I’ve got a mortgage to pay." But before we get any further into his show, we really need to talk about Monkey Barrel Comedy. Seriously. How many venues do they have now? I only realise on the way to tonight’s show that it’s not in one of their two locations on Blair Street, or the steakhouse where we saw Liam Withnail last night - it’s in what used to be called The Hives, down the road from yet another room they’ve got on Niddry Street. I remember when they first started in Edinburgh – they were a Simian Substitute Site back in August 2016 when they were setting themselves up as a direct competitor to The Stand, being only the second all-year-round comedy club in the city. And over the last year or two, their reputation seems to have grown substantially – whenever comedians talk about venues that give them the best deal, they’re talking more about Monkey Barrel than the Stand these days. Their pay-what-you-can model seems to be working nicely for punters too. It’ll be interesting to see how this progresses.
But back to Mark Nelson, our pandemic hero thanks to his hosting of a year’s worth of Saturday night livestreamed comedy shows for the Stand. He’s surprisingly modest about his achievements on that score, insisting that not being able to do his job in front of an audience meant he didn’t really feel he was a comedian any more. Because this turns out to be another show about identity, as Nelson looks at the four key elements of his own – as a man, a father, a Scot and a comedian.
He’s right, too: working in front of an audience takes his act to a whole new level. Part of it is his constant battle with us to see how far he can go, hurling an unspeakable idea into the room and running away to watch the carnage from a safe distance. It’s most obvious in the section where he promises to tell us four uncomfortable truths about the pandemic, which will get progressively more uncomfortable as he goes on: and then he tells us the first one... (And yes, the other three are even more uncomfortable.) But his control of the crowd throughout is immaculate, keeping us all on his side as he pushes the boundaries just a little moew. Seeing this gig has been on our list of things to do for a couple of years now, and it’s lived up to expectations completely. Give this man his own TV show now! No, not that one.
Dinner is at Salt Horse, which we already knew had great beers but now also has great food, in the form of a selection of po' boy sandwiches. Which means that a couple of hours later, when the host at Snort - Rhiannon McCall - asks the audience to all tell out what they had for dinner, we both yell out po' boys. It doesn’t help, apparently.
You may have guessed that Snort is an impro comedy show: its USP is that its cast is selected every night from a pool of the New Zealand comics currently performing here. We’re interested because of our current Taskmaster NZ bingeing, and in fact recent performances of Snort have included Laura Daniel from season 2, plus Rose Matafeo from the UK version. Tonight, we get a chance to see Paul Williams again after yesterday: presumably he’s the biggest star name of this group, because he’s the only one to have his surname mentioned. (A bit of research, i.e. looking at the show fliers being handed out afterwards, suggests that our cast of seven also includes Abby Howells and Eli Matthewson.)
It’s quite a nice structure for an impro show. A number of guests from elsewhere on the Fringe are given a word from the audience, and have to make up a two minute monologue on the topic on the spot: then the regular cast comes in and creates a series of short, very tentatively linked sketches based around the ideas in the monologue. As a result, the end point is usually a long long way from the start, and tiny glitches in the storytelling have seismic consequences down the line. For example, when one of the performers reacts to a mention of Sheffield United with ‘come on you Blades’, and nobody else on stage knows what it means, within a minute a football match has turned into a knife fight. All of which came out of a two minute monologue about Monopoly, by the way. As a piece of silliness to send you off to bed chuckling, Snort works just fine.