Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime – Wellcome Collection

We all love a good murder mystery, and there’s something about the committing and investigation of horrific crime that fascinates us. Whether your taste is for the gentle mystery of an Agatha Christie Poirot or Marple puzzle which is light on the gruesome details, or for the more graphic depiction of criminal activity in gritty dramas, chances are forensic investigation will have played a role somewhere. From fingerprint evidence to DNA samples the forensic elements in the process of identification and conviction of criminals fills countless books and TV shows every year.

This new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection examines the use of forensic evidence and its place in the process of detecting the perpetrators or crime. It takes you from the original crime scene, through the morgue, laboratory and ultimately to the courtroom, whilst giving an excellent overview of how practices and techniques have developed in the last century. Interweaved among the sometimes gruesome exhibits are some artistic works created by those inspired by the nature of death and decomposition, as well as insightful video interviews from those who collect, use and analyse forensic material as part of their work.

Investigators stat at the scene, so is a natural place for the exhibition to begin. The first thing you see is unexpected- what looks like a doll’s house with an open front but is actually a detail reconstruction of a house where a violent crime took place. Around the walls nearby are large scale colour photographs of reconstructed deaths in a bathroom and kitchen using dolls as proxy for the victim. It’s rather unsettling but an immediate insight into the way investigators need to understand the space in which the act took place. Now digital scanning is used to create a computerised image of the scene and a video explains how this works.

But things are about to get a lot more gruesome with photographs from real murder scenes, a piece of ‘art’ made from the floor on which the artist’s friend was murdered and some photographs that use luminol to show the remnants of blood spatterings many years after the crime took place. This really isn’t going to be an exhibition for the faint-hearted, but I found I became most squeamish about the behaviour of blowflies and maggots, attracted to the body, which are used to determine the time of death. Now I’ve seen a lot of Poirots and not once does the medical examiner ever mention maggots, even though this is their key method! Although, in this case I’m rather glad TV has lied to me.

Moving swiftly on, you enter the morgue and the techniques used to determine the cause of mysterious death – the autopsy. We learn that in France identifying dead bodies used to be a spectator sport and many a respectable Frenchman would pop down to the morgue for a bit of light entertainment – presumably on days when the opera or theatre was closed. There are some recreations and some real examples of injured body parts including a replica shattered skull, a pierced liver (as well as the knife that pierced it) and a brain showing the passage of a bullet. Alongside this are digitised index cards which tell the human story behind the work of the forensic pathologist including a woman who was hit by a motorbus, detailing her age, lifestyle and the condition of her organs, as well as the circumstantial details of the accident.

Once the relevant samples are collected, everything is then sent off to the laboratory for analysis, and in this section of the exhibition we learn about the development of finger printing techniques, charts with eye shapes and colouration, mug shots and more recently DNA sampling. It also includes some fascinating experiments with blood types and how the size and shape it leaves behind can indicate the nature of the death. So as well as seeing how different types of investigation have changed over time, this room shows that crime-solving techniques and scientific specialisms like toxicology and pathology were also developing along the way.

In the next room, the process returns to changes in search and identification techniques, where more human stories are emphasised. One interesting example is the use of head x-rays of a recovered body overlaid onto a photograph of a missing woman to prove it was her, and a touching video from the survivors of mass genocide in Chile who have spent more than two decades searching the desert for the remains of their relatives, becoming experts in identifying fragments of bone among the sand. It’s a sad reminder that while much of this exhibition has focused on individual crime, the expertise it unveils is also being used on a larger scale in the search for those lost in war and mass political crimes.

At the end of this detail process comes the moment in court and this final section gives examples of where forensic evidence has been used in trials, including the now contentious sentencing of the infamous Dr Crippen who was found guilty of murdering his wife, although recent DNA testing has cast doubt on this. So finally you get to hear from lawyers and those who have used forensics to actually prove their innocence, and questioning the role of the media in implying guilt before a trial has concluded.

Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime is one of the best exhibitions running at the moment and completely free – although you will need to judge how much is suitable for children (after the first room it’s less gory). I liked the way it balanced the scientific knowledge with engaging human stories, while subtly mixing in examples of medical art and important historical texts. It cleverly, and rightly, avoids getting caught up in fictional portrayals of detectives, and maintains its proper scientific focus throughout. It will certainly open your eyes to the vast array of specialisms that modern forensic scientists and the police can use, which is some comfort in knowing that however anonymous the person may be, all of this knowledge is called upon to solve the crime. I may prefer my murder mysteries light and lacking in carnage, but I probably won’t look at Poirot the same way again.

Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime is at the Wellcome Collection until 21 June and entrance is free, although timed entry by ticket may be in operation at busy times. Follow this blog on Twitter: @culturalcap1.


Man and Superman – National Theatre

Happiness is something we’re all looking for, and whatever that means to you, it can be a lifelong pursuit. Whether it be a certain type of luxury, a happy family or just freedom to be yourself, almost everyone will have a dream or goal to work towards. But what if we’ve got this all wrong and the years or decades spent hoping for more are wasted? According to Shaw’s controversial hero Jack Tanner, while we’re all dreaming our lives away, life – the very excitement of just existing and experiencing the here and now – is passing us by.

Despite being more than a century old, this revival of Man and Superman feels extremely pertinent – tapping into questions that are still troubling us now. Many of these are concerned with society’s expectations of the life we should lead and of the characteristics of men and women. As the play opens Jack Tanner is a celebrity, famed for writing a radical book which has set him politically at odds with acquaintance Roebuck Ramsden. Part of his philosophy is that marriage is pointless, a façade for indignity and something women force on men to preserve the biological need to repopulate. Yet when his good friend dies, Jack is appointed co-guardian of Ann who had manipulated her father into the appointment with her own designs to marry Jack. Learning of this plan Jack runs off to Spain with Ann in pursuit and attempts to retain his freedom.

At around 3.5 hours this is a monster of a show and includes the often excluded third Act concerning Jack’s philosophical dream set in hell. Yet this fascinating production zips along and when the interval arrives at around an hour and 45 minutes, I could easily have stayed there and watched it to the end without a break – crazy but true! Admittedly, at times, it’s not an easy thing to watch and with our twenty-first century eyes some of the attitudes about and of the women will certainly jar. Having a central character whose only wish is to be married and conducts a campaign of lies, deceits and manipulation to get what she wants isn’t going to win over modern female audience members.

Yet, beneath the surface, there are also many aspects of Man and Superman that positively reinforce the role of strong and independent-minded women. First, this play is over a hundred years old so at that time to have a character like Ann appear on stage at all was a radical move – yes she is driven by marriage, but one of her choosing to a man who will be her sparring equal, instead of the weak young man Octavius who follows her about. She controls the action of this play, outsmarting and outwitting all the men and can be seen as the basis of many of the strong female characters that followed her. Second, this is a comedy and much like Oscar Wilde’s characters, this production encourages the audience to view everyone, and particularly Jack as rather ludicrous, thus his views can also be seen in this light. Here is a silly man and the scrapes he gets into with a set of silly people presented entirely for our amusement.

By giving this a modern setting, director Simon Godwin and designer Christopher Oram are asking the audience to think about some of the points Shaw raises and how far we have really come in the last century. Jack may applaud the idea of babies being born outside of marriage or not being born at all, but today how often are women in their 30s asked when they plan to marry and have children – it is a pressure society and the media still exerts on unmarried women who have chosen a path other than having families. Rather than seeming old fashioned, watching this production of Man and Superman showed me that Shaw was actually imagining a society that is still some years away from really existing.

Absolutely central to this production is Ralph Fiennes’s performance as Jack which balances a wonderful comic timing with the world-weary philosophising Tanner indulges in during his long speeches. Fiennes is an actor I would happily watch read the phonebook so his almost permanent appearance on stage for 3.5 hours is joy from start to finish. It is only since the Grand Budapest Hotel that the actor has been lauded for this comedic skill, but this comes as no surprise to anyone who had seen In Bruges or his stage work including God of Carnage a few years ago. Many will only know him from Harry Potter and Bond which Fiennes recently explained has given him the financial freedom to do more theatre and will head to the Old Vic next year for The Master Builder. But his performance here is at its best during the longer speeches where he is able to build momentum and tension to create a climactic moment – and this is a skill you see in his earlier films such as The English Patient and The End of the Affair – where he conveys complex and deeply felt emotion or opinion. Jack may hold some ludicrous views but he is convincing and sympathetic.

Supporting Fiennes is the brilliant Indira Varma as Ann, who is every bit his match and although we see her behave in a way modern women may find uncomfortable, she is also someone to root for – even though you know both she and Jack can’t ultimately have their way. Varma ensures Ann never becomes annoying and it’s fascinating to see her turn arguments and discussions around to suit herself, easily controlling everyone around her. Ann is an interesting collection of contrasts, wanting both so much and so little, and Varma’s verbal duelling with Fiennes will keep you gripped throughout.

There is a fine supporting cast too with Tim McMullen almost stealing the show as the bandit Mendoza that Tanner meets in Spain who by coincidence is in love with the chauffeur’s sister. Nicholas Le Prevost is always a welcome addition to any cast, and here plays Ann’s other disapproving guardian. Christopher Oram’s design is beautiful using digital panels across the back wall to project blurred images of flowers, gardens and organic patterns which look stunning against some of the more traditional sets, and adds emphasis to the way this production cleverly navigates old and new.

Much has been said about the inclusion of the dream sequence set in hell where Tanner in the guise of Don Juan debates the philosophy of life and existence with the devil and companions. Admittedly this is the first time I’ve ever seen Man and Superman so can’t comment on what it would be like without it, but it was fascinating to listen to the debates rage between the characters, and a rare opportunity to sit back and think about what life means. Excluding this from the play would seem to me like cutting out its heart.

Man and Superman is then an absolute triumph for the National Theatre; it is a play that espouses views we may not always agree with but this production offers both plenty to think about as well as much to entertain. It’s never a chore to see Ralph Fiennes on stage and he shines here as Shaw’s radical anti-hero destined to be bumped back to earth. If you’re still searching for happiness, then 3 and half hours in this theatre is an absolute treat and as Jack himself would hope, will make you think about the purpose of life itself.

Man and Superman is at the National Theatre until 17 May with an NT Live broadcast to local cinemas on 14 May at 7pm. Most tickets are sold out, but keep checking the website for returns or book for an NT Live screening. Follow this blog on Twitter: @culturalcap1.


Rules for Living – National Theatre

Christmas (or indeed Easter) with the family is always something that raises as many concerns as smiles, so no wonder it is well-trodden ground for comedy writers. When there are no young children around to hide behind, a group of adults trapped in a house together for days on end inevitably leads to frayed tempers, nervy exchanges and plenty of tension. Used to behaving however you want, returning to the parental home brings out the sulky teenager in a lot of people, and, far from the cosy American family festivities, by the time Boxing Day arrives everyone’s thankful that it’s 364 days until we have to do this all again.

Rules for Living by Sam Holcroft taps into this rich seam of comedic situations, presenting one Christmas at a family home, where adult children Matthew and Adam have returned home with their partners for the day, and their invalid father has been allowed to visit from his nursing home. The conceit here is that each protagonist is given a rule, shown on a scoreboard at each end of the stage, giving the audience some insight into their behaviour which is unknown to the other characters. For example, Matthew must always sit down to tell a lie, let’s the viewer know that anything he says while sitting down is untrue. And the root of much of the comedy comes from this additional knowledge.

It is an interesting concept which works well at times but, in what is a surprisingly long play, eventually becomes a little tiresome. I liked the notion that family politics is like a game, with individuals scoring points off one another, usually to make themselves look better, and the concept is realised here as well as it probably could be, but it does become a little repetitive towards the end. There’s also an announcer at the beginning and in the interval announcing the beginning and resumption of ‘play’.

Chloe Lamford’s design is excellent and the play takes place in a kitchen / living room surrounded on four sides by the audience, exactly like a tennis court. As well as the usual furniture there are basketball court markings on the floor and 2 large scoreboards on either end so the audience can keep track of each character’s rules and how they change, all building up to a final point-scoring section. It uses the new and flexible Dorfman space well – which is very modern and has a more Young Vic feel – so the view appears to be good from most seats.

The play itself does have some genuinely hilarious moments and a great cast of accomplished comedians and comic actors who relish their roles. Miles Jupp and Stephen Mangan lead the way as warring brothers Matthew and Adam, belittling each other to make their own choices seem better which gets increasingly out of control. Deborah Findley is initially an intimidating and controlling presence as their mother Edith but she too succumbs to hysteria as events unfold. Claudia Blakely is also excellent as Adam’s secretly estranged and neurotic wife Sheena, while Maggie Service plays the obligatory outsider as the bouncy Carrie, Matthew’s actress girlfriend unused to the rules of a strange family Christmas.

It’s a fun evening, but does feel like you’ve seen it all before and other than the design and nominal structure, there’s nothing particular new here or hasn’t already been satirised by Alan Ayckbourne. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, there is a welcome cosiness and familiarity to the type of humour and it is an interesting and well told story with plenty of laughs, but it’s not perhaps as radical as it likes to think. It’s a tad over-complicated with so many backstories to keep track of and I’m not sure we need to see the father or Adam’s daughter, having them as off-stage influences would have been much stronger. Still there is a food fight, so can’t complain.

It’s been a while since the National Theatre and I were friends; a series of underwhelming productions in the last 18 months, overpriced tickets and a tendency to sell even their cheap Travelex seats to Members who can afford to pay more than £15, has narrowed their audience demographic. I liked King Lear although the central performance was somewhat feeble; Medea was great, as was the revival of A Taste of Honey, but The Silver Tassie is just an awful play while their production of A Small Family Business was disappointing, so having to pay at least £40 for substandard shows was becoming a joke.  Nothing in the most recent winter programme  appealed and there has been a tendency to be a little too reverential to established playwrights whose more recent work has certainly needed some editing. And even the remotest implication that audiences are too stupid for a certain play isn’t exactly a winning marketing strategy.

But with a new Director in place, the NT may be turning a corner or at least manoeuvring into a corner-turning position. Perhaps it’s too early to get the flags out but there is a new version of Carol Churchill’s A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire to come and Ralph Fiennes is already well into his run of Man and Superman which will be reviewed here shortly. The NT and I are not quite friends yet but we’re in the same room again and there are appreciative nods and smiles. The signs look good and this production of Rules for Living feels like its heralding a fresh start of interesting new writing and innovative revivals. Well, here’s hoping anyway!

Rules for Living is at the National Theatre until 8th July. Tickets are £15-40 with concessions available for under 18s. Follow this blog on Twitter – @cutluralcap1


Cotton to Gold – Two Temple Place

Science and technology has long gone hand-in-hand with arts and culture. Although now they’re seen as rivals for funding and prestige, in fact historically these two things have been inextricably linked. Fiction, for example, has presaged the future shape of technological development, whilst those making their fortune from scientific endeavours invested their new wealth in cultural pursuits. So our modern obsession with technological progress, which so marginalises the arts, is somewhat misguided and I’ve written before about the value of cultural expression when all that scientific endeavour rages at the freedom of the individual.

This new exhibition at Two Temple Place weighs in on this debate with a look at the collections of leading eighteenth and nineteenth century industrialists based in northern England. Gathering pieces from Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery, Haworth Art Gallery in Accrington and Towneley Hall in Burnley, this interesting exhibition demonstrates how closely related technological development and investment in the arts were at this time, and it’s also fascinating to see the impetus Britain’s role in the Empire and exploration gave to the types and variety of artefacts that were collected. What could seem like a showcase of the riches of wealth industrialists actually tells an interesting story about philanthropy and the donation of great swathes of cultural goods to local museums and town halls to benefit the community.

This eclectic exhibition is loosely held together by the incredible book collection of Robert Edward Hart which appears in most of the rooms, taking us from intricately decorated Books of Hours from across medieval Europe, to incredible first editions of Shakespeare, Byron, Spenser, Swift, and Milton. Clearly the progress of the written word was something that drove the international-nature of his collection which also included Assyrian tablets from the early days of the history of writing and a number of beautifully illustrated books from Persia. All of this is juxtaposed with a large loom and coil of incredibly thick rope to emphasis the work that paid for his hobby.

Prints were also among the most popular items to collect and again these are threaded through the exhibition to showcase the diversity of interests among industrialists. Some of cotton-magnate Thomas Boys Lewis’s extensive archive of Japanese prints of everyday life from around 1700-1900 are displayed in the first room including the famous Hokusai wave (recently depicted in Lego by Nathan Sawayer). Upstairs are some early Turner watercolours collected by brewer Edward Stocks Massey who bequeathed a large sum to Burnley as long as his pubs kept their licenses. Turner’s subjects include some regional sea and landscapes as well as pictures from the Holy Land.

My favourite prints are the John Everett Millais images from the1840s owned by Wilfred Dean, a wash boiler manufacturer. The pictures are delicate black and white sketches of a man from the same series and they really are stunning, particular male nude with head supported to the right where the muscles of the back are brilliantly drawn. There are also some quirky animal art-works by Edward Landseer and a wall of book illustrations owned by James Hardcastle, all of which again emphasise the broad range of influences on the nineteenth-century collector.

But it’s not just art on display and no exhibition on this era would be complete without a fair amount of taxidermy and some natural history displays. The Victorians were fascinated by the natural world and Darwin aside there are lots of examples of their interest in understanding and documenting other species, both in the UK and further afield – In Wives and Daughters (for example), the hero Roger is a science scholar who grows close to the heroine Molly through their mutual interest in the natural world and Roger’s African expedition. Back at Two Temple Place, George Booth’s collection of birds is shown as well as Arthur C. Bowdler’s glass cases full of beetles from around the world but it will be William T. Taylor’s preserved Peruvian mummy from the twelfth-century that will stick in your mind along with his llama-skin bound diary.

Another of my favourite collections is the Tiffany vases and mosaics owned by Joseph Briggs, at one point assistant and good friend of Louis Tiffany himself. Near the lower staircase are several mosaics of flowers and birds which have a lovely pearlescent quality while in a cabinet on the first floor are some beautiful pieces, including the large Peacock Vase from 1900-1910 showing how Tiffany experimented with pattern and design of his coloured glass. There’s even a tongue-in-cheek aspect to this section as the Aquamarine Paperweight Vase has an extended base section that looks like a fishbowl.

At times wandering through all these amazing things it’s hard not to spare a thought for the working conditions of the people in various mills and factories whose labour paid for all these incredible gifts to the nation that they almost certainly never enjoyed, while their entrepreneurial bosses scoured the globe for exciting nick-nacks.  And perhaps you don’t get a sense of any conflict that the newly rich faced with the established aristocracy who would almost certainly resent any encroachment on their ancient rights and privileges.

Yet that doesn’t detract from neatly arranged exhibition that draws strong links between Britain’s changing place in the nineteenth-century world and the diversity of interests that provoked. For what else is a wealthy industrialist to do with his money but buy objects displaying his wealth and taste (always an important element for aspiring gentlemen in this era)? Above all it reiterates that indissoluble connection between arts and science, showing clearly how they continue to inspire and reflect one another, if only we continued to recognise and promote the unquestionable value of cultural expression in the modern world.

Cotton to Gold: Extraordinary Collections of the Industrial North-West is at Two Temple Place until 19 April and entry is free.


The Broken Heart – The Globe

There are some forms of death that have quite naturally fallen out of fashion; once upon a time people were able to catch their death of cold as Sarah Miles did in Graham Green’s The End of the Affair, but no one does that any more, it’s a lost art. Perhaps in our more cynical modern world the least likely fictional death is to die of a broken heart, although in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama it was all the rage. Arguably Marianne in Sense and Sensibility gives it a go but we all know she was just being overly dramatic and spent too much time on rainy hillsides without her galoshes and mac.

So in John Ford’s 1630’s play The Broken Heart you may be unsurprised to hear that several people come a cropper either directly or indirectly as a result of their own or someone else’s heartbreak. And although the audience may find all this quite unlikely, I have to completely disagree with some of the critics and say this new production at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in the Globe is so charming and beautifully staged that you will be completely captivated by it. The reviewers seem to personally dislike the play and have been rather unfair in judging this instead of the production (with a revival this is what they should focus on actually) and yes it is long and there are a lot of layered plot strands, so you’ll need to pay attention to keep track of who is who and who wants what, but it is thoroughly engaging and cleverly staged.

Set in Sparta – indicated by togas over Jacobean dress – the production opens violently with the snatching of Penthea from her lover Orgilus where she is taken to the alter to marry Bassanes instead, in a tactical marriage arranged without her consideration by her brother Ithocles. Orgilus flees to Athens but returns in disguise to watch over Penthea and his own sister Euphranea who has promised to remain single until his return. If you’re keeping up with this, meanwhile Ithocles goes to war and returns a conquering hero, regretting the part he played in his sister’s abduction and eager to make amends. His warrior status brings him close to the Royal family and he hopelessly falls in love with Princess Calantha who is meant to marry a local Prince named Nearchus. Ithocles’s fellow warrior Prophilus has fallen in love with Euphranea so Orgilus must openly return to assent to the marriage and intent on revenge sets in motion a series of tragic events which results in a fairly high death count and a trail of broken hearts.

I know that all sounds pretty complicated and you can’t day-dream but none of it seems superfluous in any way and the play hurtles along at an impressive pace. One of the most interesting elements here is the staging which cleverly uses the confines of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse to impressive effect. The use of the pit entrance and staircase up to the stage mean scenes take place below the stage directly in front of the pit audience which is fantastic for an engagement perspective – these aren’t lofty characters acting out a story somewhere above you but real people standing half a meter away – and it’s always impressive when actors can be that close and not have it break their concentration, particularly with people like me staring at them judgementally – I’m practising my tough critic face but it probably just looks a bit gormless.

Director Caroline Steinbeis has also used the two circle levels to deliver scenes and characters are seen climbing onto the stage from the lower circle, as well as using the traditional entrances from the back of the stage. I think this use of the space really helped the audience connect more with the production. A mention also for the amazing costumes by Wardrobe Manager Megan Cassidy and her team, the women’s dresses in particularly carefully denoted their status, and any changes to it, as well as having a slightly barbed feel reiterating how the female characters are used as pawns for male advantage. The golden armour for the King and Princess Calantha is really quite stunning and very regal. Despite the togas over jerkins which looked great the men have to put up with some knee-length pantaloons teemed with knee-high sandals – really not that sexy but they do somehow still look like manly warriors.

The acting from the entire cast is very good and you quickly become engaged in their stories. They felt like one complete company and worked together really nicely, mixing the warlike feel of returning soldiers with the romantic plots, bitter jealousies and ultimate demise of several characters. Luke Thompson once again shows he’s well on the way to very big things by bringing out the warlike dignity of his Ithocles as well as a more tender side in regretting his sister’s marriage and love for Calantha. It’s easy for a good actor to stand out in bad crowd but considerably more impressive to stand-out in a good one such as this, so it’s interesting to feel the production lift even higher whenever Thompson is on stage, and he has a natural feel for the verse. For The Public Reviews I previously wrote about his terrific Mark Anthony last year at the Globe, followed by an engaging role in Tiger Country at the Hampstead, and it’s only a matter of time before he lands a major TV role and hysterical fans will then queue round the block and crash ticketing websites to see him on stage (as with Cumberbatch and Tennant who both did years of theatre before hitting the big time). Should any of that come to pass, and if he continues to make shrewd choices it really should, you heard it here first!

Owen Teale has the semi-villainous role of Bassanes the jealous husband who steals Penthea, but here has a more buffoonish quality which adds a necessary touch of lightness to the serious love dramas that concern everyone else. Amy Morgan also lends dignity to the tragic Penthea who, despite her broken heart, bravely accepts the choice her brother and husband have made. Brian Ferguson’s Orgilus moves nicely between initial despair and bloodthirsty revenge while also accepting there will be consequences of his shocking actions. There really is no weakness in this cast and although Sarah MacRae’s Calantha could be a little more regal, this production can only strengthen as the run continues.

So, people may no longer die of broken hearts but in the Globe’s latest production you’ll see it’s not quite as romantic an idea as you may think. Here, in the beautiful setting of the candle-lit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, you’ll see that the pursuit of love is as brutal and bloody as any war fought for power and land. So ignore the critics, John Ford’s play will leave you with plenty to think about but also lots to enjoy – even if you get lost in the twisted plot the staging and acting are so impressive that you will feel transported nonetheless. Just be sure not to catch your death of cold on the Southbank on the way home!

The Broken Heart is at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at the Globe Theatre until 18th April. Tickets start at £25-£45 and £10 standing tickets are available.


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