I’ve decided to go through my many Facebook posts about theatre from last year and collect all my instant reactions to shows as I saw them — fragmentary, brusque, overly enthusiastic or unsympathetic as they may be. Sometimes these posts spawned spirited discussions, and I’ll try to include whatever else I said as the threads developed (but I’m not including other people’s comments). In two cases, I’ve included the half-finished drafts of reviews I managed to write up but never finished. Enjoy. Or whatever.
There’s a lot of stuff here. A bit of a table of contents might be useful:
- Coriolanus (Shakespeare, dir. Josie Rourke) Donmar Warehouse / NT Live. 30 Jan 2014
- Henry V (Shakespeare, dir. Michael Grandage) Noël Coward Theatre. 15 Feb 2014
- King Lear (Shakespeare, dir. Sam Mendes) National Theatre (Olivier). 16 Feb 2014
- The Lion King (Tim Rice / Elton John, dir. Julie Taymor) Lyceum Theatre. 18 Feb 2014
- ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (John Ford, dir. Declan Donnellan) Cheek by Jowl in Colchester. 19 Feb 2014
- The Knight of the Burning Pestle (Francis Beaumont, dir. Adele Thomas) Sam Wanamaker Playhouse / Shakespeare’s Globe. 20 Feb 2014
- Ghosts (Ibsen, dir. Richard Eyre) Trafalgar Studios (originally Almeida Theatre). 20 Feb 2014
- The Two Gentlemen of Verona (Shakespeare, dir. Simon Godwin) Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford Upon Avon. 4 Aug 2014
- The White Devil (John Webster, dir. Maria Aberg) Royal Shakespeare Company (Swan), Stratford Upon Avon. 5 Aug 2014
- 2 Henry IV (Shakespeare, dir. Gregory Doran) Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford Upon Avon. 6 Aug 2014
- Medea (Euripides, dir. Carrie Cracknell) National Theatre (Olivier). 7 Feb 2014
- Richard III (Shakespeare, dir. Jamie Lloyd) Trafalgar Studios. 9 Feb 2014 (with notes for an unwritten review)
- 1984 (George Orwell / Robert Icke & Duncan Macmillan; dir. Icke & Macmillan) Playhouse Theatre (originally Almeida Theatre). 9 Feb 2014
- Charles III (Mike Bartlett, dir. Rupert Goold) Wyndham’s Theatre (originally Almeida Theatre). 15 Oct 2014
- Hamlet (Shakespeare, dir. Sarah Frankcom) Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. 16 Oct 2014
- The Cherry Orchard (Chekhov, dir. Katie Mitchell) Young Vic. 17 October 2014 (with a few paragraphs from an unfinished review)
- James II (Rona Munro, dir. Laurie Sansom) National Theatre (Olivier). 18 Oct 2014
- Electra (Sophocles, dir. Ian Rickson) Old Vic. 18 Oct 2014
Coriolanus (Shakespeare, dir. Josie Rourke) Donmar Warehouse / NT Live. 30 Jan 2014
A solid production that almost certainly works better in the theatre than on camera. But why the hell did they think Hiddleston would be a good Coriolanus? Physically, he kind of pulls it off, but he comes across as far too smart, too thoughtful, and too charming in the first half to make any of the blow ups make sense; and he just doesn’t seem insane enough to run and conquer a city ON HIS OWN. I can buy that Volumnia is describing her ideal of what her son should be rather than reality when she conjures up the image of the stone cold killer while he’s off fighting, but here the contrast is a bit too stark. He’s great at the subtle stuff — his take on Martius’s reaction to all the honours right after the battle is great and really interesting. But on the whole, he’s not quite dumb (or stupidly arrogant) enough.
THE revelation of the evening for me? Mark Gatiss as Menenius. Fantastic performance. For the entire first half, he’s basically the audience’s index for what’s going on. Want to know if something is politically smart or dumb? Watch Menenius’ face. And his final scene is extraordinarily moving. Had no idea the guy had this sort of performance in him.
Overall, the second half, after Coriolanus’ banishment, works MUCH better than the first. And there’s a good reason for that. Josie Rourke evidently has absolutely no idea what to do with the politics of the play. (She basically admitted this in the intermission interview, when she briefly touched on politics but then said that they had really focussed on “the characters” in rehearsal. Yeah. That shows.) So the plebeians are caricatures, the tribunes are just evil, and Coriolanus yells a lot, because he’s hard done by. It’s pretty flat, and I have no idea what they thought they were doing; I hope Rourke was just a bit lost rather than trying to make the political points the show seems to be making. That all changes after the intermission, though, when the production basically becomes a family drama (it starts a bit earlier, actually, with the budding relationship between Aufidius and Coriolanus). That’s a slightly strange take on the play, as it creates a division between the personal and the political that’s kind of pointedly dissolved in the play, but whatever — it works, and things finally click theatrically.
Same applies to the tribunes. I really kind of loved them theatrically, especially in the second half — the scene when they find out that Coriolanus is now with the Volscians is pretty brilliant (and very nicely staged: stripped down, sort of geometrically blocked, very static). But politically, it’s a really simple-minded interpretation: they’re just power hungry (and lovers). Then again, they give such loose performances that I was happy to ignore the conceptual headache (at one point, Brutus cuts off Cominius with an ad-libbed “shush shush” — how often do you see that on a UK stage? Loved it).
So, yeah. A bit of a mixed bag. The last third was terrific, and very moving, but I do have to wonder: if you’re not really interested in politics, why the hell do Coriolanus? (And why were the Volscians all Northern?)
Henry V (Shakespeare, dir. Michael Grandage) Noël Coward Theatre. 15 Feb 2014
Wow, the Jude Law Henry V is astonishingly dull. Literally the only noteworthy thing: Graham Norton sat in front of me. His arrival almost gave the lady next to me a heart attack. I left at intermission. Better things to do with my afternoon.
First show in years that I’ve walked out of. And apparently I missed a better second half, as a colleague noted in the comments thread:
Ah, damn. I just couldn’t take it anymore. Everyone was asleep, no-one laughed at a single joke, and everything on stage was SO laboured and just rang false. I’m not surprised the wooing scene worked — I thought Kate was charming enough (if not especially interesting), and if that scene isn’t in Law’s wheelhouse, what could be?
And someone else commented that they didn’t like Jude Law’s Hamlet either, although they didn’t think he was bad exactly:
Same here: he wasn’t especially bad. Not at all. Just kind of bland.
King Lear (Shakespeare, dir. Sam Mendes) National Theatre (Olivier). 16 Feb 2014
Simon Russell Beale is great — extremely detailed work, tons of little gestures, very nicely embodied progression of losing control. The evil sisters are very OTT, but fun; Cordelia solid; Edmund pale, Edgar pretty strong, with some really cool moments as poor Tom. But the production is incredibly fussy. Hideous set, bad literalism in the design (because we need projects of waves to understand that we’re now by the seaside…), noisy and largely pointless sound. Some very strong moments early on (the love trial is excellent), but things get muddled and vague soon after. The Chichester Lear was much sharper all round, and a lot more moving.
The Lion King (Tim Rice / Elton John, dir. Julie Taymor) Lyceum Theatre. 18 Feb 2014
I saw a musical. I never see musicals. I have all sorts of deep-seated loathings for the format and its place in the Anglophone theatre world.
But for the first five minutes, I was transfixed — literally had tears of joy in my eyes. Visually and theatrically, I loved it. But after about five minutes I got over that, and then I was mostly grumpy about the flimsy story (Hamlet my arse) and the creepy colonial politics. And it felt exactly as much like opium for the people as I had expected. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t admire the artistry: I did. But the politics disturbed me.
‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (John Ford, dir. Declan Donnellan) Check by Jowl in Colchester. 19 Feb 2014
Oh my God, the Cheek by Jowl ‘Tis Pity is unbelievably good. Most exciting English show I’ve seen in years and years. I want to go back and see it again immediately.
I’ll write about it once I’m off the train and off my phone, but I thought it was about as good as English theatre gets: still text-y, still focused on psychology at heart, but so inventive in its staging, so clever in its use of space (and music levels!), so smart about building scenes (redefining what a scene is even), and just kind of delightfully relentless.
And then I had no time to write about it. Still regret that.
The Knight of the Burning Pestle (Francis Beaumont, dir. Adele Thomas) Sam Wanamaker Playhouse / Shakespeare’s Globe. 20 Feb 2014
This was pretty delightful, and a HUGE crowd pleaser — massive, loud, foot-stamping ovations. Too long, especially in the last two acts (the joke is wearing thin at that point), and there are stretches where the Grocer & the wife are so much more entertaining than what’s happening on stage that I just wanted everyone else to shut up, but for the most part it’s riotous good fun. Sir Humphrey gets a laugh a line, and Merrythought has to be one of the craziest concepts for a character in all English drama. Was very surprised just how much singing there is in the show (it’s not just Merrythought). Also interesting that the mock battles/military scenes work perfectly well in the Wanamaker: I can absolutely see them staging Henry V there.
Ghosts (Ibsen, dir. Richard Eyre) Trafalgar Studios (originally Almeida Theatre). 20 Feb 2014
Richard Eyre’s production of Ibsen’s Ghosts has a neat set, some weird and some excellent performances (the latter: Lesley Manville & Jack Lowden), and is otherwise bog standard, paint-by-numbers Anglo-Ibsen. Zero surprises. (The most noteworthy thing about the show: I was sitting in the front row; in the Trafalgar Studios, that means you’re about a foot from the actors, without a stage. Ten minutes in, a lady one row back from me began snoring VERY loudly and I was just waiting for one of the actors to corpse. Nothing. Remarkable composure.)
The Two Gentlemen of Verona (Shakespeare, dir. Simon Godwin) Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford Upon Avon. 4 Aug 2014
The RSC’s Two Gentlemen of Verona (certainly the Shakespeare play I know the least well): a show of two halves. First 90 minutes s-l-o-w, pretty ponderous, never really got going — very deliberate delivery (thus extremely comprehensible, sure), some very awkward physical comedy, some totally superfluous set magic, some utterly puzzling set pieces (two black benches in particular: no one sat on them, but they blocked the view of people — including me — on either side of the stage). Generally, not an especially adept use of the RSC’s thrust.
Second half: WAY more drive, less fussy, and suddenly compelling. Less a comedy than a generically indeterminate exploration of what Proteus’ switch of erotic attachment does to the people around him. The attempted rape of Silvia was relatively muted, but her reaction wasn’t — and nor was Valentine’s (at least at first). And when Valentine does his weird about-face and tries to force a reconciliation, the production doesn’t paper over the many cracks. It’s a pretty remarkably violent last act, and an ending that’s perhaps as open (and as much of a departure from Shakespeare’s text) as the RSC will contemplate.
And Mossup was a rather adorable, and eloquent, Crab.
On the one hand, then, a really disjointed show, in which the second half jarred pretty badly with the first. On the other hand, a show in which the power of the second half redeems the production’s initially very slack pace and energy.
The White Devil (John Webster, dir. Maria Aberg) Royal Shakespeare Company (Swan), Stratford Upon Avon. 5 Aug 2014
The RSC’s White Devil is a case study in what happens when a concept crashes headlong into a text-driven approach to performance: kind of a cool set, kind of clichéd Eurotrashy party antics, and then everything grinds to a halt as actors switch into verse-speaking-mode, and the entire show might as well be in Jacobean costume.
Other thoughts: I am a big fan of Webster. I prefer Duchess, but I like The White Devil. But bloody hell, does the man ever need a dramaturge’s help. This is a prime example of the kind of play that needs to be cut by about a third, with a purpose, and without any respect for the impossibly complex tangle of plot lines. Just decide who you want the show to be about, and cut down the other characters to fit that goal.
Lastly, I simply can’t muster the energy to think about cross-casting as anything other than a simple casting choice. Having a female Flaminio is just fine. It barely registered as a change for me — and it certainly wasn’t any kind of intervention, let alone a conceptual move. (There were problems with how that female character was developed, perhaps, but the idea of giving Vittoria a sister did no “violence” to the play, nor did it feel odd or wrong or like a stunt or whatever. It was just a casting decision, and one that I wish way more productions of early modern plays made.)
In response to a colleague that thought the trial scene was pretty well handled:
I liked Vittoria in the trial scene (for once, some speed on the delivery!!!), but I didn’t think the build-up was all that effective — for one thing, the lawyer wasn’t nearly awful enough, and I at least didn’t think it was at all clear what was at stake in Monticelso taking over the prosecution. But the energy certainly picked up in that scene.
2 Henry IV (Shakespeare, dir. Gregory Doran) Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford Upon Avon. 6 Aug 2014
RSC 2 Henry IV: Very competent. That’s all I’ve got.
Well, OK: I thought they totally flubbed the ending of Shallow’s and Silence’s first dialogue, where the absurd pathos of the moment wasn’t allowed to sink in at all before Falstaff’s arrival is announced. And I didn’t think “I know thee not, old man” had any of the gut-punch awfulness that moment surely needs. But other than that? A smoothly staged, totally attitude-free rendition of the play. Did it give even a slight hint as to why this play might conceivably matter in 2014? Not at all. But apparently that’s good enough.
(On a positive note, I suppose, I heard for the first time just how jarring Falstaff’s “God save THY grace” sounds. That’s something.)
Medea (Euripides, dir. Carrie Cracknell) National Theatre (Olivier). 7 Feb 2014
I wrote a more nuanced and MUCH longer review of this production here, but my initial rage struck me as pretty amusing, and amusingly pompous. Also foaming at the mouth.
Holy shit, the NT Medea is the worst piece of theatre I’ve seen at the NT since… I don’t know. Frankenstein perhaps? Just awful. Atrocious, pedestrian translation, acting all over the place and totally incongruous, a reading of the play that shrinks a clash of belief systems of archaic proportions down to a domestic drama and female hysteria (and simply doesn’t understand the relationship between Medea and the chorus), and, as usual, a complete failure to integrate movement, visuals, and text. An utter disaster, I’m afraid. Really don’t understand how this could have happened.
Richard III (Shakespeare, dir. Jamie Lloyd) Trafalgar Studios. 9 Feb 2014
Yeah, that R3 was pretty great. Certainly the best UK show of this trip so far.
And that’s all I wrote. Perhaps my biggest regret of 2014: that I never found the time to put together a proper review of this excellent production before details started to fade from my memory. Here’s the bare skeleton of a draft I managed to type up at the time:
a) super precise, concrete, etc. but also b) totally flexible, and very easily so
The use of Margaret to structure the space — when she sits there drinking tea during the final battle!!!
Extraordinarily quick scene changes (for instance, the beginning of the council chamber scene)
The use of amplified sound for all sorts of purposes; again, Margaret: how b/c of the mic she can almost whisper some things without losing power/impact
Finally, a kind of freedom! Not governed by the verse, overall acting choices/styles are pursued with consequence, they’re not stopped short by proper verse speaking. And freedom to make noises, to take time, to stammer even! (Rivers.) Accents, cuts, transpositions. Speed!!! The first three scenes just blaze by. Scenes intercut — the death of Rivers & Hastings’ laughter particularly great.
He isn’t very charming. But he’s so unrelenting in not giving his interlocutors conversational space that everyone eventually accepts his version of the truth. In the Anne scene, that only sort of worked, but it did work — if in a very different way that usual. Asking “Was ever women in this manner won?” as a genuine question? Hilarious. Deep irony: “A horse!” (When he actually needs a gun) Coming out of the loo after the interval, keeping everyone waiting, all that stuff — great. As was the boar-act of young York. And the killing of Anne. Jesus. The way he raced over the two tables charging at her? Terrifying.
Duct taping Queen E to the chair to make her listen to him? Great, as was how long it took for her to kiss him after that.
Also great, oily Buckingham — very, very nicely done.
Odd soliloquy behaviour, though: it’s such a small, intimate space — and yet, everyone is always talking over our heads, not making eye contact. Why?
1984 (George Orwell / Robert Icke & Duncan Macmillan; dir. Icke & Macmillan) Playhouse Theatre (originally Almeida Theatre). 9 Feb 2014
Headlong’s 1984: I see, I think, what all the raves were about. Visually very well done — I loved what happened to the set as the show went on. The last half hour remarkably chilling and intense. And there’s a sweetness to the scenes in the antiques shop back room that makes them hard to watch (which is a good thing). But it’s a slow burner: I struggled mightily to get into the play at all for at least half an hour. Much better once Julia showed up — things started moving from there on. Glad I saw this.
Charles III (Mike Bartlett, dir. Rupert Goold) Wyndham’s Theatre (originally Almeida Theatre). 15 Oct 2014
This sort of lived up to the hype, I’d say: a contemporary blank verse play about royal history, and it largely worked! I’m still trying to wrap my head around its politics, and I thought the first half — the first three acts — had MUCH more bite than the second half, when what starts out as a very smart exploration of the place of a monarch in a democracy, and the relationship between legislative legitimacy and ethical considerations (an exploration that rather called Enemy of the People to mind!), essentially devolves into a somewhat predictable (if fun) family drama.
In terms of staging, not a stunning production, despite some very nice choral singing and live accompaniment. What really amused me: seeing modern English actors playing contemporary characters in modern outfits still start to move their bodies in the way most English actors move their bodies when playing Shakespeare. Verse does the strangest things to actors around here.
Hamlet (Shakespeare, dir. Sarah Frankcom) Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. 16 Oct 2014
Maxine Peake is a really good Hamlet, all wiry, twitchy, nervous energy, brim-full of sardonic anger, and impressively volatile. But apart from her, I think there were perhaps two or three minutes in the entire show where I gained much by keeping my eyes open — for the most part, this may as well have been a radio play.
Good nunnery scene, disappointing closet scene (why does that always fall flat now? I can’t remember the last Hamlet I’ve seen in which that scene worked — other than with acting students in a rehearsal hall, where it tends to work beautifully). The switching of the blades, for once, made sense — no mean feat.
To blah or not to blah was cut! Or so I thought, with delight, but then it reappeared before R&G quiz Hamlet about Polonius’s corpse (or rather, Polonia). I still think that that speech has no place in the play and can go without the evening losing anything except for a nice bit of poesy.
Didn’t really get the gender politics of the casting. Having a female Polonius? Fine. Really not a particularly noticeable change — which is, I think, a bad thing in this case. If you’re going to change that figure into a mother, surely the change should have consequences? If not, why do it? And ultimately, I felt the same about Hamlet: Peake played him — as he was referred to — in a pretty androgynous vein, and I just couldn’t read what that meant: was she playing a man, simply? Or someone self-identifying as male (and being accepted as such, without hesitation, pause, or conflict, by everyone in the play)? If so, why not make something of the potential for conflict there? Since the decision didn’t really read, to me at least, that seemed like a huge wasted opportunity: either just turn the character into a woman (because why not?) or if you’re interested in exploring the idea of a transgendered Hamlet, then do that — but build the consequences into the play. In other words, make it work dramaturgically. Instead, what I got was a very talented actor playing her heart out — but I couldn’t really figure out what that performance meant, in this version of the play, or if it was supposed to mean anything — if the gender of the actor was supposed to do some sort of work, or if the achievement consisted in ignoring the actor’s gender.
All that said, it was really, really nice to feel the warmth of the applause at the end. I don’t know if I’ve witnessed this sort of affection for a hometown hero in an English theatre before (I know it from Germany, but I think London is too big for it). That was cool.
The Cherry Orchard (Chekhov, dir. Katie Mitchell) Young Vic. 17 October 2014
Oh man. That’s 1 for 3 so far. It’s not that Katie Michell’s Cherry Orchard is a dud. It’s just nowhere near as good, let alone as exciting, as I wanted it to be. Some great performances. Some really lovely moments. But ultimately… well… there wasn’t a samovar, but there may as well have been. And yet, as conventional as the entire thing felt, it also seemed oddly rushed, with none of those Chekhovian silences and empty stages really being given time to breathe or sink in. English Katie Mitchell sure plays a different game than German Katie Mitchell!
And in the comments thread on a colleague’s Facebook timeline, I added that I thought it was…
a production that’s really not much more than a solid piece of work. A handful of kind-of profound moments, a couple of nicely observed moments and unexpected shifts of focus, a couple of vexing blocking choices… but beyond that? A well-crafted show, but not one that ever seemed to risk the failure [Simon Stephens is] talking about [in an interview about his translation of the play to which the colleague had linked].
I also really regret not finding the time to write this show up. If nothing else, I find the contrast between Mitchell’s UK work and her work in Germany very, very interesting from a research angle. I started writing a review, but never finished it; here’s the very drafty page or so I managed to type up:
Judging from the articles that appeared before this production of Chekhov’s last play opened, audiences were in for a refreshing overhaul of the 110-year-old classic. Simon Stephens published a long essay in the Guardian about his version of the text, stressing its continued resonance (even as he conceded that no-one can avoid failure in adapting, translating, or staging Chekhov). Katie Mitchell herself described the new version as an effort to “scrape the barnacles off the way the play is normally translated,” defining her goal as “doing [the play] as dynamically and cleanly and clearly as I can.” In her staging, she wanted to avoid “performance conventions which no longer feel valid” – including the familiar British conventions of doing Chekhov (and his contemporaries) with “samovars or silver birches or beautiful dresses.” Her goal was to rescue the play from a UK tradition of treating it as “quite a sweet and sentimental, soft piece,” rediscovering its “terrifying” force: “‘Of course we’re not in Russia and it’s more than a century later, but we have to try to recapture that power it had for the original audience.’”
True enough, there are no samovars or birches, and the dresses tend towards the plain and vaguely modern. Nor is there a single cherry blossom in sight. But if “we” are not in Russia, where are we? The set, unchanged throughout all four acts but for the furniture, which entirely disappears after the curtain falls at the end of Act 3, is a deep and wide photorealistic version of a 19th-century interior, slightly decayed and significantly frayed around the edges, rendered in loving detail. The furniture, too, is on the shabby side, and there isn’t a lot of it – it seems that Varya has had to sell off the contents of the nursery to make ends meet. But whatever this space is, it isn’t a contemporary room: there is no samovar in it, but there might as well be one. Superficially, it looks a lot like a single-storey version of the set for Alles Weitere Kennen Sie aus dem Kino, Mitchell’s production of a Martin Crimp play at the Deutsche Schauspielhaus in Hamburg. But whereas that set was rich in metaphorical resonances, and used accordingly, the Cherry Orchard set seems to function rather more straightforwardly as a representation of a room in Ranevskaya’s estate. There certainly are few, if any, indications that we’re not in Chekhov’s time.
At the same time, the costumes suggest otherwise: while not out-and-out modern dress, neither are they of any clearly identifiable historical moment.
And that, annoyingly, is where I stopped.
James II (Rona Munro, dir. Laurie Sansom) National Theatre (Olivier). 18 Oct 2014
This was really enjoyable, and much funnier than I had expected. Takes a while to hit its stride, though — the entire first half, full of nice movement stuff and inventive-ish stage imagery feels a bit strained to me, and makes for a difficult-to-follow narrative; it’s in the one-on-one scenes between Douglas father and son, William Douglas and James, James and Mary that the play really hits home. Also, great on-stage footie match.
So, thus far, the two qualified “yay”s of the trip have been new plays about kings.
Electra (Sophocles, dir. Ian Rickson) Old Vic. 18 Oct 2014
And a bit of a lacklustre finish: Electra at the Old Vic, with Kristin Scott Thomas in the lead.
Cool to sit on the Old Vic stage, but catastrophically bad sight lines — from my third-row seat, I couldn’t see anything happening on the ground, and much happened on the ground. Also still fail to see why in-the-round is so great. I just don’t love looking at actors’ spines all that much.
UK sound designers: why is it desirable to have an ominous droning noise accompanying much of a play? Same in Cherry Orchard, similar in Hamlet. It’s not a bloody movie. I don’t need aural mood enhancers, all the time.
I like the Frank McGuiness translation. It feels sinewy.
The show? Ah well. Good enough. Nothing to say, though, really. Chorus was handled deftly, naturalistically. The servant was pretty great — the narrative of Orestes’ “death” really gripping & vivid. I liked that. Can’t say much for Electra’s female relatives — not bad, not outstanding either. KST worked very hard. But to steal a point from Glenn Sumi on Twitter: I don’t think it was primal enough. Her giddiness when Orestes reveals himself: chilling. And the final gesture was very effective, and unexpected: she lies down on top of Clytemnestra’s shrouded corpse and hugs her tight. I wish that raw need, that sense of a mother-daughter relationship destroyed but still urgently felt, had been more visible in the rest of the performance.
Not sure what there is to say about the direction. I don’t really know what the production wanted from the play. But then again, that’s all too common an experience for me with UK stagings of older plays.
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