Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Galway International Arts Festival - An Extraordinary Experience

It's 10.30 on Friday night in Galway, the West of Ireland city that is hoping to become the country's next European Capital of Culture, and down-town Quay Street is buzzing with noisy life. Given the array of bars and restaurants dotted along the narrow street this isn't unusual, but given that it is the first weekend of the 2015 Galway International Arts Festival, an annual two-week melee of theatre, music, art, comedy and spectacle that styles itself as 'The Festival of Extraordinary Experiences', the vibe is different.

Sure enough, the sound of martial drums in the distance attracts revellers onto the street, where the crowds part as three gigantic frock-like constructions are wheeled by, with the white-painted faces and torsos of a trio of opera singers at the centre of each. As they pause every few hundred yards or so, flanked by the equally colourful Tin Soldiers' Band of Drummers, the sinhers of The Giant Divas and Les Tambours regale the throng with excerpts from Carmen and an Edith Piaf number before moving off again.

As extraordinary experiences go, French street theatre company Transe Express's latest outing into the international festival circuit following appearances at Sydney Harbour, the London Olympics and several turns during Edinburgh's Hogmanay programme dating back to the 1990s is the perfect larger-than-life weekend serenade.

It is also indicative of the spirit of Galway International Arts Festival, which, under the guidance of Paul Fahy, its director of the last ten years, has developed an already expansive programme even further. This mix of subversive populism can in part be defined by Australian artist Patricia Piccinini, who took her seventy-foot tall missing link she calls Skywhale to the air in the form of a hot air balloon. Skywhale's cartoon-like enormity captured a collective imagination in a way that made audiences flock to Relativity, Piccinini's exhibition of similarly moulded mutant creatures at the city's temporary Festival Gallery set in an old print-works.

An unsettling mixture of cuteness and a form of anthropology culled from science-fiction, Relativity's uber-real looking sculptures offer up a world of possibilities as fantastical as GIAF itself. Only an unseasonal outbreak of high winds managed to ground Skywhale, and even then only temporarily. This may have had something to do with former Split Enz singer Tim Finn encoring with Weather With You, the hit single he co-wrote for Crowded House with his brother Neil, at the end of the first of two nights performing in St Nicholas' Church.

Weather With You and Split Enz's Six Months in a Leaky Boat, which he performed on the second night, were the nearest Finn came to greatest hits during White Cloud, an intimate and deeply personal mix of song, spoken-word and home movie footage that explored Finn's roots in New Zealand. While making for an at times raw experience as Finn sang with only piano and guitar accompaniment, White Cloud was a moving piece of multi-media storytelling that wouldn't look out of place in Irishman Fergus Linehan's eclectic inaugural programme for Edinburgh International Festival, which starts next month.

There are numerous connections between Galway and Edinburgh, both in current and past programmes. It was at the 1997 GIAF where Enda Walsh's career-making play, Disco Pigs, starring a nineteen year old Cillian Murphy in his first professional job, played to acclaim before Corcadorca company's ferocious production took the world by storm following its Edinburgh Festival Fringe run.

Walsh has continued his connection with GIAF, with the festival co-producing Ballyturk, Walsh's 2014 play that reunited him with Murphy prior to the show transferring to Cork and London. Also in the Ballyturk cast was Mikel Murfi, who will be appearing in The Last Hotel, Walsh's forthcoming opera which will premiere at this year's EIF.

This year's GIAF saw Walsh open A Girl's Bedroom, the second of what looks set to be an ongoing series of new texts presented as installations in a gallery setting designed by Fahy. With an audience of five led into Fahy's pink-perfect recreation of a six year old's room, the lights dim as the recorded voice of actress Charlie Murphy recounts a twelve-minute psychodrama about a woman who carries every detail of her past around with her. In tone it resembles Tennessee Williams' miniature masterpiece, Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen, and, delivered in Murphy's hushed tones, is similarly evocative of a life erased.

One of the major successes of the 2014 Edinburgh Festival Fringe was riverrun, Olwen Fouere's startling dramatisation of sections from James Joyce's novel, Ulysses, for which this most singular of performers won a much deserved Herald Archangel, an honour previously bestowed upon Walsh. This year at GIAF Fouere was performing Lessness, a staging of an experimental short story by Samuel Beckett inspired by composer John Cage. Like riverrun, Lessness was co-produced by GIAF, an initiative which has been developed during Fahy's tenure so that much of the festival's main programme sees it receiving a producer or co-producer's credit.

This was the case with both Amy Conroy's Luck Just Kissed You Hello, and a revival of Frank McGuinness' startling play, The Match Box. Where Conroy played the lead in her study of siblings at war with each other as their father lays dying in Caitriona McLaughlin's production initiated by Melson's HotForTheatre company, rising star Cathy Belton gave an equally astonishing turn in Joan Sheehy's production of McGuinness' play.

Conroy  put humour to the fore in a study of how family defines us, even as her character Laura returns home reinvented as Mark. As s/he enters the man's world of her brothers, the roots of all their dysfunctions begin to show as an everyday emancipation takes place.

A family is ripped apart in dramatically different fashion in The Match Box, in which Belton plays Sal, a woman on the run from herself as much as others as she relates her fate in an isolated country cottage. As she talks of a loss that gives vent to a rage worthy of Greek tragedy, Sal becomes emotionally and physically more brittle, striking matches as she goes, watching the flame of life burn quickly in a searingly powerful piece of work.

Visiting shows included Exhibit B, Brett Bailey's searing meditation on racism that was pulled from its London dates following protests last year after its EIF run. While the show went on in Galway without incident as was the case in Edinburgh, Bailey's depiction of racist atrocities using live performers in a series of tableaux vivants left audiences who saw it similarly stunned and discomforted.

A music programme featured a series of programmes by the RTE National Symphony Orchestra and a series of traditional showcases, including the duo of fiddler Brid Harper and guitarist and whistle player PJ McDonald, who played a packed-out Saturday afternoon session in Monroe's Live venue.

On the banks of the River Corrib, meanwhile, the giant blue Festival Big Top held court to large-scale concerts by the likes of St Vincent, Damien Rice and John Grant, the latter of whom was upgraded to top of the bill after Sinead O'Connor was forced to withdraw through illness. O'Connor missed some of the biblical weather that caused some performances of outdoor shows such as the high-flying Turned Upside Down and Man on the Moon to be rained off, though that didn't bother the four thousand revellers watching Irish band Kodaline inside the Festival Big Top.

Nor did it bother the Giant Divas, who paraded through the streets a second time sporting mini umbrellas attached to their heads. By Sunday teatime, even Piccinini's Skywhale was airborne once more, providing a whale's eye view that showed just how extraordinary Galway International Arts Festival can be.

Galway International Arts Festival 2015 runs until Sunday, then in 2016 from July 11-24.
www.giaf.ie


Galway International Arts Festival and the Road to 2020

Galway International Arts Festival was founded in 1978 to provide a national and increasingly international showcase for some of the burgeoning artistic activity going on in the city.

While Ollie Jennings was administrator of GIAF from its inception up until 1991, it has had four artistic directors; Patricia Forde from 1992-1998; Ted Turton from 1997-1999; Rose Parkinson from 2000-2005, with Paul Fahy taking over in 2006.

Operating a multi-discipline approach, GIAF combines work by internationally renowned artists with street spectacles, grassroots events, gigs, clubs and comedy.

In recent years, as well as hosting works by the Galway-based Druid Theatre Company, GIAF has featured work by the Abbey, the Royal Court, Steppenwolf, Propeller, Hofesh Schecter Dance Company and the National Theatre of Great Britain.

GIAF has also hosted Primal Scream, Philip Glass, David Byrne, Joni Mitchell, the Kronos Quartet, and shown work by David Hockney and David Mach.

Under Fahy's tenure, GIAF has become more of a producing organisation, and in the last year has toured productions of Enda Walsh's Ballyturk and Olwen Fouere's riverrun across the globe, with future tours planned.

Fahy has also brought the visual arts into the GIAF fold. With no permanent large-scale contemporary gallery space in the city, temporary spaces such as the Festival Gallery house major shows by Patricia Piccinini and others.

Elsewhere this year, Galway City Museum is housing a series of autobiographical works by Louise Bourgeois while a new space by the docks, The Shed, is showing Borders, a series of paintings by Russian emigre, Varvara Shavrova.

Also on show at GIAF this year is Primary Resources, a collaboration between Galway-based artist-led space, 126, and Glasgow's Transmission Gallery.

First Thought is a series of talks initiated by Fahy which look at themes relating to GIAF. This year's programme included Remaking the Shape of the World, in which climate change expert Kadir Van Lohuizen revealed that the coastline of Hull, the English city set to be the UK City of Culture 2017, is being eroded by as much as a metre a year.

In 2014, GIAF attracted audiences of 180,000 to 213 performances, talks and exhibitions across twenty-nine venues.

Key to Galway's artistic rise has been the pioneering work by Druid Theatre Company, which was founded by Garry Hynes, Marie Mullen and Mick Lally in Galway in 1975, and was the first professional Irish theatre company to be set up outside Dublin.

Over their forty year existence Druid have become key figures in the Galway scene. The company have toured locally and internationally, premiered Martin McDonagh's Leenane trilogy, and have brought both their DruidSynge and DruidMurphy compendiums of works by JM Synge and Tom Murphy to Edinburgh International Festival.

Druid are currently in New York with DruidShakespeare, while a series of new plays were given readings at this year's GIAF season under the Druid Debuts banner.

Another significant Galway-sired arts company is Macnas, whose open-air spectacles have left a mark on GIAF in terms of other outdoor work programmed.This year that included French street theatre specialists Transe Express, Flemish trapeze artists Collectif Malunes, solo circus performer George Orange and acrobats Tac O Tac.

It was at the GIAF that The Waterboys singer Mike Scott first saw The Saw Doctors, with the two bands becoming close during the recording of The Waterboys Fisherman's Blues album.

Galway launched its bid to become European Capital of Culture 2020 in May this year. Having lost out in 2005 to Cork, where Edinburgh-based site-specific theatre company Grid Iron took their production of The Devil's Larder, Galway's 2020 campaign will be looking at the long-term legacy of the award when it was won by Glasgow in 1990 and Liverpool in 2008.

Glasgow 1990 was key to the city becoming a major European centre where art and culture has thrived. Venues opened during Glasgow 1990 include Tramway and The Arches, the latter of which was forced to close earlier this year after Glasgow City Council revoked its late licence following recommendations by Police Scotland.

The Herald, July 28th 2015

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Monday, 27 July 2015

Bailey's Stardust / Moonglow

Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh until October 18th
Four stars

When David Bailey became a fashion photographer for Vogue magazine just as 1960s London began to swing, he became as much of a face of the era as his subjects, despite being on the other side of the camera. It is the pin-ups of Mick Jagger, Jean Shrimpton, Marianne Faithfull, The Beatles, Bob Dylan and a very sexy Yoko Ono striking assorted poses that initially catch the eye, however, in this major touring retrospective which arrives in town like a retro-chic hot date rubbing shoulders with the great and the good at Edinburgh Art Festival.

Moving with the times, there is pop iconography down the ages, from Jack Nicholson to John Lydon to Kate Moss to Noel Gallagher and Damon Albarn, bad boys and girls all. An entire section is devoted to the Rolling Stones, while, old softy that Bailey undoubtedly is, a whole room is set aside for portraits of his fourth wife, Catherine Bailey, who he met on a 1980s shoot.

Yet, as with any 1960s chart-topper, there is a more complicated flipside. It was Bailey's harrowing images of poverty in Sudan, after all, that gave Live Aid a visual identity arguably worth more than the music that sound-tracked Bob Geldof's charity circus. Images of vintage boozers in London's East End and latter-day hard-men, meanwhile, are as anthropologically evocative as his portraits of eastern holy men.

It is the mixed media assortment of this compendium's second show, Moonglow, however, that reveals just how far Bailey's art has come through a series of paintings, screen-prints, sculptures and box-like constructions. The glamour is still there in distressed collages of the Kray Twins and others, but, like Bailey, the more weathered they appear, the more depth they acquire beyond the surface of this major archive.

The List, July 2015

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Sam Simmons: Spaghetti for Breakfast

If things had worked out differently, Sam Simmons might have ended up becoming a zoo-keeper. As it is, the thirty-something Australian has spent the last decade or so travelling the world as a self-styled professional idiot, brandishing an off-kilter brand of comedy that has confused and confounded many, even as it has reeled in critical acclaim and ever-larger audiences.

With his 2014 show, Death of A Sails-Man, being nominated for the Fosters Edinburgh Comedy Award following a previous nomination in 2011 for Meanwhile, Simmons returns this year with Spaghetti For Breakfast. This latest one-man extravaganza, which has already scooped the Underbelly Adelaide Award and the Melbourne International Comedy Festival Award for Best New Show, may take a nod at the inner world of its creator's psyche, but it still allows full vent for his inner dickhead to explode into primary-coloured life.

“There's some very dark stuff,” Simmons admits, “and it gets to the reason why I'm an idiot, which is to escape childhood stuff, but there's nothing saccharine there. There's nothing worse than seeing a show that's saccharine. It has to be funny.

“It also came about from some quite weird experiences playing all the club rooms in London, where I got quite a lot of negativity from club owners. They'd say, oh, the stuff you do, it's weird, it makes no sense. It makes total sense for me, and this is why I do absurd comedy, and why I don't want to do stand-up. Don't get me wrong, I love stand-up, but I don't want to do it. Live comedy doesn't just have to be about stand-up.”

Simmons first started to develop his stage persona when he appeared at a benefit show put on by himself and some friends after another friend lost a hand-bag.

“I got up and started being an idiot,” he says, “but it wasn't stand-up. It sounds vain, but I didn't have this great ambition to get up onstage and start telling all these jokes or anything like that.”

Simmons presented on Australian radio station Triple J and interviewed bands on the station's small-screen offshoot JTV before featuring in anthropological mockumentary series, The Urban Monkey with Murray Foote and sketch-based show, Problems. While a sense of Simmons' world beyond the stage can be gleaned in Wallstud, a three episode series of miniatures for Channel 4's Comedy Blap strand, the roots of Simmons' oeuvre dates right back to a mis-spent youth watching endless re-runs of cult 1970s Brit TV show, The Goodies.

“The Goodies was on every night when I was a kid,” Simmons reflects. “They showed them all the time, so it felt like it was on a loop for seven years. It would probably surprise a lot of people in the UK to learn that I think Monty Python was too weird for me, but with The Goodies, I think I connected with them, and felt all three of them were in my body. If you could condense Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graeme Garden and Bill Oddie into one body it would probably look a bit like me.”

The spirit of The Goodies is certainly evident in Simmons' stage act, a manic pot-pourri of absurdist antics, fourth-wall breaking routines and sheer out-and-out puerility. Then there are the shared concerns with ex Goodie, ornithologist and nature documentary presenter Bill Oddie.

“I was training to be a zoo-keeper for years and then I left to do this,” says Simmons, “but what I really want to do is make Attenborough documentaries. That's the dream.”

Sam Simmons: Spaghetti for Breakfast, Underbelly, August 5th-30th, 9pm.

The List, July 2015


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Sunday, 26 July 2015

Richard II

Botanic Gardens, Glasgow
Four stars

The 1970s porn film style wicker chair flanked by chess pieces at one end of the Kibble Palace is a give- away that Bard in the Botanics' truncated take on the first episode of Shakespeare's historical mini-series might not be playing it straight. As too are the silver-maned showroom dummies standing either side of a pink-wigged statue. Sure enough, once a mercurial Robert Elkin introduces proceedings as a battered looking Richard in a vest and tight leather trousers, Jennifer Dick's production of her own adaptation has Adam Donaldson's Duke of Aumerle clean him up with a tender affection that is clearly mutual.

Together the pair look like they're having a hoot play-acting at running the country as they dole out judgements with a waspishness which understandably gets people's backs up. Finlay McLean's John of Gaunt is particularly unhappy about his heir Bolingbroke being thrown into exile, with the future Henry IV here remodelled by EmmaClaire Brightlyn as Lady Bolingbroke.

In what has become her speciality over the last few years, Dick puts just four actors onstage for a version of the play that focuses as much on the personal as the political. The amount of gender-bending homo-erotic content on show recalls the provocative radical chic of 1970s vintage Citizens Theatre by way of Derek Jarman and Neil Bartlett, an effect accentuated by Gillian Argo's playful design.

With Elkin an already dynamic presence, the use of a contemporary pop soundtrack gives things an extra flourish, with both Morrissey and Antony and the Johnsons adding to the melancholy as the lovers are forced apart in this most daringly audacious of reinventions.
 
The Herald, July 26th 2015


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Friday, 24 July 2015

The Importance of Being Earnest

Pitlochry Festival Theatre
Four stars

There's always been a knowingly subversive heart beyond the seemingly throwaway one-liners of Oscar Wilde's most celebrated dissection of polite society. There are hints of this during the opening of Richard Baron's revival when Gavin Swift's work-shy fop Algernon comes to at the piano following an all-night bender. With tunes blaring from the Victrola and complete strangers puffing on something dubious in the living room, just when you think Viz comic's Raffles The Gentleman Thug might gatecrash, in steps Reece Richardson's lovesick Jack Worthing.

The boys duly indulge in some bantz before Jack makes goo-goo eyes at Emma Odell's deceptively coy Gwendolen on the blind side of Margaret Preece's Lady Bracknell, a buttoned-up gold-digger who used to be a bit of a one. What follows as Algie and Jack embark on an elaborate game of kiss-chase with Gwendolen and Jack's country-dwelling ward Cecily seems to signify an entire class in search of some kind of identity beyond the numerous facades they flit between.

If keeping up appearances is everything here, the prospect of sex broods beneath each layer in a way that set a template for Made in Chelsea. There's an archness to proceedings as Swift and co play interior monologues direct to the audience in a set of winning turns that capture Wilde's recognition of his characters' sheer ridiculousness. In this way, the play winds up its world's occupants with a gleeful abandon that cuts through its respectable veneer without them even realising it. If Wilde is guilty of anything, it's of investing them with more intelligence than they deserve in this timelessly ribald exploration of the unbearable lightness of being.
 
The Herald, July 24th 2015


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Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Jennifer Tremblay - The List, The Carousel, The Deliverance - A Very Personal Trilogy

Jennifer Tremblay never meant to write a trilogy of plays. Only after the Quebecois-born novelist and playwright's Herald Angel award winning solo play The List became a hit did she even consider a sequel to its moving and poignant depiction of a woman coming to terms with life in the country and the tragedy that results from the domestic creations she constructs to survive. Even then, Tremblay only wrote The Carousel after gauging some of the audience's reaction to its predecessor.

“People always said that the woman in The List didn't seem to like her children,” says Tremblay through a translator, “but that wasn't the intention of the play. Then as soon as I wrote The Carousel, because I'm obsessed with form I knew there had to be a third play.”

The result of this is The Deliverance, a new work which receives its world premiere during this year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe in an English translation by Shelly Tepperman produced by Stellar Quines, the female focused Scottish theatre company with a long track record of producing Quebecois drama. This connection dates back to company co-founder and artistic director Muriel Romanes acting in the Tron Theatre's touring production of The Guid Sisters, a Scots language version of a seminal play by Michel Tremblay (no relation).

Here Romanes reunites the team who produced both The List and The Carousel, with actress Maureen Beattie performing in all three plays, while John Byrne again designs, Jeanine Byrne provides lighting and Philip Pinsky sound. With audiences having the opportunity to see all three plays as part of the 2015 Made in Scotland Showcase, Tremblay reveals a complex dramatic portrait of a woman in crisis.

“The List came from a true story I heard about a neighbour when I was living in the countryside,” she explains. “After what happened the whole village felt guilty about what they could have done to help, but I tried to capture all that guilt through the one character.”

In The Carousel, the same woman looks at her own past, ending as she prepares to visit her estranged mother. The Deliverance begins when she arrives, as the roots of their inter-familial conflict are gradually revealed.

“If The List is the head of the body of the three plays,” Tremblay says, “then The Carousel is very much the heart. With The Deliverance I very much wanted to write something more physical.”

Born in 1973, Tremblay wrote from an early age, and devised plays for friends before publishing a collection of poems while still a teenager. She had children at a young age, and after studying creative literature for a time, wrote extensively for children's television and penned a novel which was turned down by twenty-two publishers before she founded her own press. Several children's books followed, though it was only when The List won the Governor General's prize in 2008 that her work really started to be noticed.

“Writing was always a way of living,” she says. “It was something really natural to me.”

The emotional rawness that pulses her plays are typical of many Quebecois writers, including Michel Tremblay and other writers such as Daniel Danis, whose work has also appeared in Scotland.

“I feel very much part of that tradition,” Tremblay says, “partly because of the work by Michel Tremblay and others, but for me it always starts off with something intimate and personal. It starts with a need and an instinct, and then I take things from there. I write for children a lot, so it's different for me in that I use humour, but in Quebec a play often starts off with a lot of humour and then turns dark and sad.

“I'm still working out where that sadness comes from, but maybe it's from the high number of suicides there are here, which is something that theatre probably reflects. In Quebec as well people recognise a relationship with nature that is really wild, and people who live among nature in that way are also really wild and quite primitive.”

Despite such emotional intensity, Tremblay acknowledges some of the differences between the Scottish and Quebecois productions of The List and The Carousel.

“In Quebec the plays aren't regarded as a trilogy in the same way as they are in Scotland,” she says. “In Scotland as well The List lasted about fifteen minutes less than it did in Quebec. The rhythm was a lot faster, and that's about the actors knowing what is required for the public. In Scotland the List wasn't as a melancholy or as heavy as it was when it was done in Quebec, where audiences seem to need a little more time to absorb what is going on. When The List played in Avignon it was different again, where there was a musician onstage as well as an actor”

In whatever country The List and The Carousel have played, they seem to have tapped into something that audiences can identify with.

“The List is about mothers and children,” Tremblay observes, “and a lot of women can recognise themselves in that situation. All women can relate to what happens in the play. All men who talk to me after seeing it as well can relate to it. They recognise their mother or their wife.”

With Tremblay currently making plans to perform an adaptation of a recent novel with a musician, she retains a fondness for Stellar Quines' take on her work even as she already seems to have moved on from it.

“It's a play about things that are very close to a lot of women's experiences,” she says, “ and there's something universal there that people can identify with.”

The Jennifer Tremblay previews at Dundee Rep, July 24-26, with the Deliverance also previewing at Eastgate Theatre, Peebles, July 29 and Heart of Hawick, July 30. The full trilogy runs at Assembly Roxy, August 6-31.

www.dundeerep.co.uk
www.assemblyfestival.com

The Herald, July 21st 2015

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Saturday, 18 July 2015

Romeo and Juliet

Dundee Rep
Four stars

On a mocked-up wooden booth stage, the lively cast of Shakespeare's Globe's touring revival of the bard's ultimate adolescent love story move from the auditorium where they've been mingling with the audience and strike up a lively tune with the assorted saxophones, clarinets and big bass drums they've been carrying. Their artisan outfits add to the effect of a hipster-led nouveau Balkan ensemble playing some boisterous homage to the ghosts of lost romances past, and after some out-front introductions, we're off into a show that doesn't let up for a second.

The lights remain on in director Dominic Dromgoole's production, which is exactly how it should be as his cast of eight plus three musicians burl their way through action which is at times cut up to juxtapose crucial moments as a film might do. So while Hannah McPake's Lady Capulet and Sarah Higgins' Nurse attempt to marry Cassie Layton's Juliet off to Paris with a girlish fervour that resembles a sorority sleepover, Samuel Valentine's lovesick Romeo and his tattooed gang strut and preen their way to gatecrashing the big fancy-dress do.

As the play's central couple, Layton and Valentine cut a youthful dash through the florid early scenes, with Layton's wide-eyed Juliet falling for Valentine's geeky charm as Romeo in a passion in four days done here as ripping yarn. Once things get serious, both with their affair and the fatal street fights they inspire, they're s understandably overcome with earnestness as any teen who becomes the centre of attention might be. When the inevitable happens, however, they're back to being players once more as things erupt into an appositely joyous dance of death.
 
The Herald, July 17th 2015
 
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