King Lear | Pre-Show Talk | Chichester Festival Theatre

King Lear | Pre-Show Talk | Chichester Festival Theatre

Hello & welcome! Thank you very much for coming to this pre-show talk. I’m Kate Bassett, I’m the literary associate here at Chichester Festival Theatre. I am delighted to have here with me this evening, Jonathan Munby. He is the director of the current production of King Lear which will be on here in very little time. Just to explain, I’m going to be talking to Jonathan about King Lear & directing for about 20-25 minutes. Then I’m going to open up the discussion to the house, to you. So please be thinking & saving up your questions for Jonathan for then. For that dramatic climax! Just to briefly introduce Jonathan, I’m sure lots of you have already seen his work, not least his 2016 production here which was “First Light”. The First World War Drama. You’ve
also got an amazing track record in classical plays, & particularly Shakespeare. You’ve not only worked at the RSC but recently at The Globe. You’ve staged, amongst other things, “Antony & Cleopatra” with Eve Best as Cleopatra. Also Jonathan Pryce in the “Merchant of Venice”. An incredible international swathe of productions from Washington to Tokyo as well. I don’t know if we’ll touch on those while focusing on Lear as well. Before we focus in on “Lear” do you want
to say a little bit about how you got into directing? By which I mean, what drew you to directing, also what your route was? Yes, sure. I was an actor when I was a kid. I’ve been acting since the age of 5. My father was in advertising. I did commercials & things & then got into
telly & had an agent & did some BBC period dramas which nobody really knows about, thank God! Martin Chuzzlewit & those things, you know, years & years ago when I was a kid. I was always just going to carry on & do that & make a career out of it. Then my parents turned around to me & said:- “actually no, you’ve got to go & get a degree & get a proper job.” So I wasn’t allowed to go to drama school so I went to university, I went to Bristol University instead. The moment I arrived at University I started to make work rather than be in it. I realised that I enjoyed it much more. I was much happier the other side of the table. Much happier with you rather than on here. It was interesting, it was immediate actually. I was fortunate in my time at Bristol University. There were two rather brilliant tutors. One guy called Professor Martin White. He was an “Ardent” editor for a while & works for New Mermaid Publishing as well. He’s a world authority on Jacobean & Elizabethan text. I spent 3 very happy years under his guidance. He got me reading some extraordinary things I didn’t know existed. So him married with another tutor at Bristol, Simon Jones, who run a physical theatre company. He again opened the door to stuff that I’d never come across before. Ways of approaching storytelling that I’d never imagined. So that’s really where I started. The work that I’m interested in doing & the work that I hope to continue doing is a kind of marriage really, of really taking classical plays & finding a kind of contemporary means of expression. Do you want to tell us what your very first ever role was on TV? It was in a commercial actually. I’m not going to tell you. That would be product placement! What drew you to “King Lear”? Is it what the play is about or what the play is like aesthetically? I have been scared of these big plays. This is a play that I’ve been very scared of. I thought that I would never be old enough, wise enough or good enough to take it on. Then suddenly it comes out of the blue! You take it or leave it. I thought:- “let’s just do it!” I chose to do this this production for a number of reasons. One was the chance of working with Sir Ian McKellen on it. We can come back to that in a moment. It’s a dream come true to work with an actor like Ian. He is truly, truly extraordinary. But there’s also the opportunity of doing this epic play in a small space. Daniel Evans who runs Chichester theatre made a very brave decision I think to program King Lear in here (the Minerva) rather than the main house. I call it “the main house” – you know – the one over there as opposed to the “fringe” over here. It’s a really brave decision because with Ian in the role you can sell out the Festival Theatre many, many times over for weeks & weeks. But actually, to tell this story in here makes a huge difference & is really the reason why I wanted to do it. The intimacy & the intensity of the experience was really an exciting prospect. To try & get the audience as close to the centre of this play but also of this man too To try & get inside his head felt like a really exciting start to a journey. So Ian, the space, but also this play too. I thought I won’t make a decision until I’ve actually sat down & read it. Whenever I approach a classical play,
especially a play that’s been done, I try & divorce myself as much as I can from previous productions. It’s very hard because we see these plays often performed. Our favourite moments from other people’s productions linger long in the mind. So I sat down & tried to approach it & read it as if I had just been handed a new play. So start with really what’s on the page. I read it. I read it in a few afternoons. I was really surprised by what I read. There were things there that I don’t think I’ve ever seen in productions before. It really led me on a journey to explore some of those things. It’s actually beyond the politics. We can come back to that. Beyond the idea of monarchy. Beyond the cosmology too & the relationship with nature & the gods. There is at the centre of this play, a very intimate story about fathers & daughters. Also fathers & sons. It’s very, very domestic. I thought – this is thrilling – if we can tell the story in this space we can really get to the ugly knottiness of dysfunctional family relationships. I really wanted to start with that. What is the nature of these relationships? Why did these relationships go wrong? What is at stake with these relationships? What are the triggers that turn son against father? Also daughter against father? That’s really one of the major starting points. How does that expand? Because it is a vaster play as well? It’s about nationhood. Did that draw you as well? The work that I’m interested in is really about work that speaks to the present. I’m only interested in telling a story that lives in the present tense. One that really does hold a mirror up to who we are now. Who we are in the present tense. You can’t look at this play & not be reminded of the fact that we are divorcing ourselves on some level from Europe. This is a play about the division of a kingdom. Here we are as we negotiate Brexit. It speaks directly of that moment. How thrilling to have a classical play 400 years ago that actually gives us an opportunity as an audience, as a group of creative people to have a conversation about what we’re doing, & perhaps the perils of what we’re doing. It’s also a play about leadership. It’s about the folly of a leader who is losing his grip. It’s about a person who acts from an impulse. He makes bad decisions & then has to live with the consequences. That’s not at all familiar now is it? (Subdued laughter.) So I was thrilled that I had this opportunity. When I started to think about the detail, the program for example, I thought how thrilling it would be not to commission the usual 4 or 5 articles for a program. Articles that discussed the play’s history or the period, or the chronology of Shakespeare’s plays or whatever, but actually to commission one piece. I approached Fergal Keane to write a piece. A single piece for the program to talk about how the piece relates to the world that we’re currently living in. It’s a really exciting piece. I think it really puts everything I’ve just been talking about in focus. Maybe this is a hard question but can you describe what kind of a world your King Lear is in? I was excited about not doing it in period for a number of reasons. One was to really harness everything that I was feeling & experiencing in the world now. So to place this story really in the present tense, to create a world, a context for the production that looks familiar, that looks recognisable, that looks like the world that we inhabit in this country. The play is set in England to say to an audience:- “this is your world”. To implicate us as an audience actually. To make us feel responsible in some way. To make us feel that this is about us. That comes with some problems when you’re looking at Shakespeare because if you set it in the present tense then where is the internet & where are the mobile phones? If you start to explore that the play unravels
itself. There are 9 key letters in this play. They have to be hand-delivered. If they are not hand-delivered you’re screwed because the play simply doesn’t work. it’s about how that information is handed from one person to the next. So what we did was we created a world that looked familiar & recognisable. It was very much its own world. It feels like a kind of parallel universe, the world of our King Lear. Also it’s not the England that we’re in. This king is a king. This king is also not just head of state but also head of the church. So there’s no division between church & state in the world of the play. So Lear as spiritual leader is also a factor in this world. That was important. So what you’ll see in the production is something that looks & feels exactly like the world we’re living through. But also weirdly skewed & different. Dystopian as well. Sir Ian McKellan has played “King Lear” before. I wondered if you talked about that with him. I’m assuming you both want to explore & re-explore “King Lear”. Did you have any discussions about re-exploring? Yes we did. My first question to him was why on earth would you want to come back to it? Why on earth would you want to put yourself through it? Given, gosh, what it takes to play this role! It’s just extraordinary in terms of the energy, the emotion, the psychology. Just physically getting through this play. It’s a mountain to climb. Why would he at this stage in his life & career want to come back to it? He was quite clear about that. He did a production at the RSC 10 years ago. He felt on some level he left it as unfinished business. There were still corners to turn. There were still doors to open. There were still things to discover & explore. Also the draw of telling the story in a smaller space. He was in a big theatre at the RSC. Then it went on tour around the world & played 2,000 seat auditora. He was more interested in what this play would be like in a room like this. A room where the audience & the actor are sharing the same air. You’re breathing the same air together. That it might be “King Lear – The Conversation” as opposed to “King Lear – The Declaration” I didn’t see that production but what may have happened in the RSC, which is, as you know, a company with a lot of money & a lot of space to fill. It becomes a pageant at times. This is hopefully going to be the opposite of that. We concentrate right down & pare it right back & allow a kind of spareness to the way that we tell it that was really focused on the humanity & the word as well. So I was thrilled to hear that he wanted to take a fresh look at it. I said to him :- “Are you really just wanting to get into room & replicate what you did?” He said:- “Absolutely no! We’re going to start from scratch!” “We’re going to start with a clean script & a clean slate.” “We’ll try & forget everything I did.” He’s kept to his word & fresh-minted everything it feels like in his performance. He’s had to because he’s surrounded by a company of extraordinary actors. They are attacking him in very different ways. They are throwing the ball back at him in a very different way compared to the last production he did. Acting is all about reacting. You only create an expression because somebody has thrown something at you. If you’re a good actor & you’re open, you’re going to have to change your response depending on what you get. He has revealed himself as one of the most brilliant actors. He will only respond to what he’s given. That’s what makes him thrilling & what makes the production that we’re doing exciting. It will be different every time. It will be absolutely about the moment. He will respond absolutely to what is thrown at him in the moment. I’ll come back to the other cast members in a minute but you were talking about paring down. Do you want to say anything about the text? Whether or not you’ve paired that down? Well those that are coming tonight will be glad to know that I’ve cut it. (Laughter) I think uncut, it’s probably about 4 hours.
It’s a huge, huge play. It’s one of the longest plays certainly in The Canon. It’s 2 stories. It’s unique in The Canon, I’ve discovered. It’s not a the story & a subplot. It’s 2 stories that run alongside each other. That is interesting. I know it’s called “King Lear” but actually it’s 2 stories. It’s King Lear & his daughters & Gloucester & his sons. They are given equal space & equal weight in the story & they are run in parallel. They are there to reflect each other & I suppose to illuminate each other. Fathers & daughters & fathers & sons. They run alongside. It’s an extraordinary piece of writing just in that respect. But I couldn’t put an audience through 4 & a bit hours. We all have very busy & exhausting lives. We’d never get through it. Also our circumstances of going to the theatre are so radically different from what they were 400 years ago. We are no longer arriving at the theatre in daylight & 2:00 in the afternoon, leaving at 6:00 or 7:00 in the evening. I have to cut the play & do the dramaturgy in order to serve an evening after you have been to work, after you have you led your busy lives. I have to have that in mind. So I never wanted it to be more than 3 hours. 3 hours playing which we’ve just about achieved. So I’ve cut quite a lot away: Repetition of things, repetition of ideas, information the audience perhaps doesn’t need, digressions away from what’s at the core of the play. It was a really exciting time cutting the play. I felt a great weight lifted the more I cut. Just very briefly for those that are interested, there are 2 versions of this play that exist in
the world. One that was published in Shakespeare’s lifetime which is known as “The Quarto” which is a small book. Very few of Shakespeare’s plays were printed in his lifetime or published. “King Lear” is one of those so The Quarto” exists. That’s possibly a very accurate example of what may have been performed at the first performance of “King Lear” in possibly 1606. Then 11 years after Shakespeare dies the “Folio of the Complete Works” was published. We have the folio edition of the play & they are 2 completely different plays. Side by side in almost every page, there’s a difference. A different word, a different phrase, different scenes. So as a director you have a big question. Just in terms of the dramaturgy of it. Which do you do? What I’ve ended up with in the cut that we’re doing is a hybrid of both. So what you’re getting is a bit of the original Quarto & the Folio text. There are scenes I’ve borrowed from both & moments from both. That’s shifted through rehearsal too. We’ve tried bits & got rid of bits & tried new bits, got rid of bits. But that’s what the cut is, it’s it’s a hybrid. I think all directors probably go on the same kind of journey. But it felt important to start with everything & kind of cut away. Because it’s all about interpretation. It’s all about the story that we wanted to tell in this theatre in 2017 with these actors. Going back to the casting, what kind of a process was that? I suppose I was particularly struck by Kent being a woman in his production. But also Gloucester? The Fool? Shakespeare’s plays have a lot of male characters & few female. Nowadays if you’re doing a contemporary context for a production you’re kind of duty-bound to challenge yourself & ask yourself the question:- “Which characters actually could be played by a woman?” “Which characters in the contemporary world WOULD be played by a woman?” I was reading the play as open-minded as I could be. Kent was a character that in the first scene defends Cordelia, Lear’s daughter. Kent challenges Lear. The character read very much like Paulina. I don’t if you know “Winter’s Tale”, another of Shakespeare’s plays? There’s a character called Paulina. She does something almost identical. She stands up to the king & defends this woman. There was something about that, that I thought was really interesting. I thought OK, what if we make this character a woman? It’s a character that goes on a journey, gets banished from the court, then has to disguise themself. I thought how interesting would it be if in order to gain access to the inner circle of Lear, she feels compelled to disguise herself as a man? She has to be a man in order to get close to the king. I thought that might be interesting. So we start with a female character who in this contemporary world feels very much like Angela Merkel. Like a high-ranking politician. She might even be the prime minister of this world in “King Lear”. She then gets banished & yes, wants to continue to serve Lear because of the nature of her relationship with him. There’s something about trying to solve the relationships. It’s a play on some level about loyalty, about what you’re prepared to do for somebody or a cause at whatever cost. What is the nature of that Kent/Lear relationship? It feels like there’s a deep love that this character has for Lear. I don’t think it’s necessarily a sexual love but a deep love that has history to it. The moment I started to think & read it with a woman in mind it just made a lot of sense. What it also does is it focuses the story very much. There are the 2 fathers. If you have another leading character that is male there’s another man in there. I thought:- “yes, make her female.” So it’s a very different dynamic. We have these 2 fathers & this woman caught between the 2 of them. In rehearsal it just played out in the most thrilling way. Sinéad Cusack is the most perfect actor for it. She’s incredible in the role & has harnessed something so beautiful & truthful as well as having huge fun with the disguise too. I won’t spoil it – you’re going to come & see it. She was the first actress I approached. I said:-“Look I’m having this idea about a female Kent are you up for it?” She said:- “Absolutely not, don’t be ridiculous! I can’t play Kent” Anyway she read it & we had a conversation. She began to see what I was seeing in terms of the potential of it. We’ve had a great time exploring it. What about other challenges perhaps, that Lear had for a director now? We were laughing earlier, how do you solve a problem like The Fool? Shakespeare’s fools are a nightmare. Often the text just isn’t funny anymore. Possibly it was 400 years ago. But in terms of social references or political references that fools might be making… Touchstone in “As You Like It” or Feste, oh God! Unbearable! So you have to find a way of making it work. Cutting & being bold with the cut. If something doesn’t make sense or is antiquated I don’t think twice about getting rid of it. If it doesn’t work, if a contemporary audience don’t understand it then I don’t really understand why it’s there. So for me with fools – & I’ve directed “Twelfth Night” & had to look at Feste in a similar way – It’s all about rooting a character in a world & in a kind of truth. We’re not living 400 years ago. Also it’s not a medieval world which, I think, is what the story of Lear comes from. The relationship between Lear & his fool is very different in a contemporary context. I had to really work hard to define what is. He’s described as an “all licensed fool”. So, in period, as you probably know monarchs would perhaps have somebody in their Court who was there to tell jokes, to entertain. They might also be allowed (being “all licensed”) to tell the truth when nobody in the court felt that they could. They were given license to speak their minds. When Shakespeare was writing this play James 1st was on the throne. He had a fool in his court so Shakespeare was writing absolutely a contemporary story in that respect . But back to our production & a contemporary context. What we decided was that Lear was a warrior king. He led the army that had gone into battle in his time. This man, this fool might have been his aide de camp. So we gave him a real job. We see that play out in the production. We see him performing a particular function. We know why he’s there. He is the man in Lear’s life who is allowed to tell him the truth, as well as being the man who can stand on a table & tell some jokes & entertain people. But casting is tricky. You need an actor with great wit, with great skill, who can do the language, an actor who also in this case, a bit like Feste in “Twelfth Night” is musical. Someone who can sing songs. We’re blessed with Phil Daniels. I couldn’t think of a better fool. He’s a gift for a director & he’s learned to play the banjolele for this production . You’ll be entertained with some hot banjolele playing later. He’s musical & he can sing. He’s witty & he’s one of those generous, gorgeous human beings too. So what you have at the core of the play is a very honest, very beautiful relationship between Lear & The Fool . That was important to me. There’s an interesting thing that happens in the course of the story. You see The Fool caring for this man who is really experiencing the first signs of dementia. He cares for him & looks after him. At one point that role reverses & you see Lear having to look after The Fool. What I needed was to find 2 actors who were prepared to explore that relationship. Ian & Phil get on like a house on fire. There’s something very beautiful about the nature of their relationship. It’s Q&A time. I was intrigued because you talk about picking out words & how many times each word was said. I wrote them down as you were talking & wondered how did you decide which words you were chasing & how did that in any way inform that your directing? We had that conversation with the company today in notes. This came from my research but also my preparing of the of the text. There’s a concordance, a collection, a book of language in these plays. You can look up how many references there are to a particular idea. It also lists how many references there are to a particular word or how many times a word is used in the text. Great from an academic point, boring as I know it sounds. But it’s fascinating. Apart from small words like “it” or “the” or “a”, the word that is mentioned most in “King Lear” is the word “me”. The moment I discovered this it was as if light bulb went on. It is a world of very selfish people in this play. It is a world – apart from those that are loyal to the king & do everything they can to support him – most of these characters pursue their own objective with a kind of ferocity & mindlessness & savagery. It’s absolutely a play about “me”, about what I want. You could argue that Lear falls into that trap absolutely too. His selfishness, his pride is his downfall. It’s a play about “me” & that’s what we were talking about in notes today just reminding the cast of the meanness, as it were, of these characters. Other words that crop up more than others
are:- “nothing”, “seeing”, ” knowing”. Also “not”. Interesting! “knowing” & “not”. A play that has lots of “nots” in it is a play about somebody saying “no”. Fascinating & interesting. If you look at that list of words that are mentioned more than any others it gives you absolutely a very direct picture of what this play is all about. Next question? I’m sure some of us here will have seen Sir Ian’s remarkable performance 10 years ago. His energy level then was outstanding. I know we’re talking about 10 years hence & I’m wondering if he ever shared with you the changes he might make in order to maintain that energy. He’s brilliant from our point of view but did he ever share anything with you?. Well, director & actor, we have a lot of very intimate conversations. They’re about the work, about the role, about how we’re going to approach it. One of the reasons I think he wanted to do this production was the fact that it is 10 years later. He’s reaching the age that Lear is. You know he’s almost 80. The age of him as a human being – he absolutely wanted to explore in terms of how to play this play, how to tell the story from that perspective. Some of the big questions that you have to ask when you’re playing this role or directing this play – Why does Lear make those decisions in the first scene? Why does he divided the kingdom? Why does he test his daughters in the way that he does? His age is absolutely about that. I think Ian was very keen to tap into who he is as a human being at this age in his life. In terms of energy I don’t see any difference in him from what he was 10 years ago. I don’t know where he gets it from. He has more energy than any of us. It’s extraordinary, actually. He’s a dynamo. I have huge admiration for him. It’s the era of older actors proving that, isn’t it? Glenda Jackson also has amazing energy as Lear. Next question? Did Ian McKellen ever present you with an interpretation with which you disagreed? With an actor of that experience & that eminence, do you give him a little more head? Are you prepared to surrender just a little bit of your directorial control? (Laughs) Yes of course, there are always disagreements. This was no exception. But I would be a fool if I didn’t have an open mind working somebody like Ian. I have a huge amount of respect for him. He knows this play better than I do. We started this process with him knowing
this play better than I better than I did. So I would have been a fool not to have embraced everything that he had to say & offer about the play & about the role. That doesn’t mean to say that I agreed with everything. I didn’t. But he’s also a brilliant actor. He also respects a director & so will always listen & will always try. I can throw anything at him & he’ll try it. It doesn’t always stay in the show. It doesn’t always stay in the rehearsal room. But he will try anything so it goes both ways. I was very nervous starting this process. Like I was when working with other great actors like Jonathan Pryce in “Merchant of Venice” for example. You step into those rooms with some trepidation. Who am I? With my (it feels like) limited knowledge. Even though I’ve been doing this play for 20 years now I still feel like I’m a rookie. As if I don’t really know what I’m talking about. It’s interesting. What you discover is that they’re just as frightened. Actors feel just as vulnerable as you do. When they walk into the room on the first day They’re as frightened as you are. You don’t know that at the time & you don’t ever think that. But it’s good to remind oneself of that. This has absolutely been a great collaboration. Yes I’ve absolutely allowed him to have his head. Also I’ve given him space, hopefully, to redefine this Lear in terms of who he is now in the world that he’s in now. One other question? Obviously Shakespeare is renowned for having cross-dressing, for men playing women within roles obviously due to the era. Do you feel compelled, due to having such a well known actor as Sir Ian McKellen, that you have to follow Shakespeare’s set style? Or do you feel that you can adapt it into your own? It’s interesting. I think Ian feels like a very contemporary actor. Never once since we’ve been in the theatre does his performance feel antiquated or old-school. He feels very, very much like a contemporary actor. Like a human being. This language is partly written in blank verse & partly written in prose. If you have an actor of Ian’s skill, Sinéad Cusack is the same, Danny Webb is the same, we’ve got brilliant verse speakers in this company. They make it sound like naturalistic text. They make it sound like normal speech. It sounds like somebody just speaking their thoughts. It doesn’t sound like grandiose classical acting which I’m thrilled about. It’s interesting & it’s a testament to them & their skill even though they’ve had very long & illustrious careers & worked for the RSC & the National, all these big companies, I don’t think for a moment that the acting in this production feels old-school or antiquated. So as I said earlier, what we tried to do was look at this play as if we’ve been handed a new play. As if William Shakespeare delivered this script to Chichester Festival Theatre last week. We looked at it from that point of view. That’s been the premise from start to finish actually. We’ve consciously tried to move away from anything that felt old or antiquated or received as an idea. There is also an amazingly naturalistic line in there isn’t there? He actually doesn’t know what he’s going to say next. He starts on something & says:- “Oh I don’t know what I’m going to say!” It’s terrifying. It’s extraordinarily modern. What an amazing thing to put in a play. If you look at this on the page, some sentences read like a Caryl Churchill play in terms of how fractured the language is. It’s interesting & here’s another boring academic fact:- It’s the play in Shakespeare’s Canon that has the most unfinished thoughts. That’s interesting in terms of a fractured world. A world where not only the world is fractured but a brain is fractured too. Where a man can no longer finish the sentence. Where he no longer knows where the end of the sentence is. That’s fascinating. Lear has 2 or 3 of those moments where his brain shuts down. He has no idea what to say next. That’s not us, that’s Shakespeare! So what you need is an actor with somebody like Ian’s skill who can absolutely harness the heightened nature of this poetry & make it sound like naturalistic speech. I think we’re we can squeeze one more quick question in. I was interested in your reasons for wanting to do this. One of the main reasons was it was in the Minerva. So it sounds like the Minerva is a member of the cast. I wondered to what extent it could be envisaged that this could be transferred to another theatre? Wouldn’t that be nice! Yes, you’re absolutely right. This room is the 17th member of the cast. You’re absolutely right in that respect. I’ve completely shot us in the foot in terms of how we’ve staged it. It’s almost untransferable in its current state We would love this show to have another life. We’ll see. It would have to shift, it would have to change. One of the beauties of this room that you’re in is the fact that it has really odd idiosyncrasies. For example you see there’s a central entrance here, exit here, there’s one down left but there isn’t one down right. Weird anomalies like that. That entrance there takes 3 days to get to where as that one’s really quick! (Laughter) That one leads straight from the dressing rooms. That one you have to take your bus pass to get to. It’s a weird room. It not only has its own kind of weird dynamic & intimacy & all those things we talked
about but in terms of staging, when I was sitting at my desk at home working out how we might tell this story I had to keep all of that in mind. I’m not going to send Ian McKellen on a journey to that entrance over there. You’ll notice during the show he will never use that entrance & rightly so. It shifts how you’re going to stage it. It shifts the physical shape. If it does go to another space then the lack of entrances from upstage right will still be embedded in the show. It’s interesting. But it is a unique space & it’s a real privilege to be in here. Thank you very much for excellent & challenging questions. Thank you Jonathan for being so eloquent & fascinating. (Applause)

1 thought on “King Lear | Pre-Show Talk | Chichester Festival Theatre

  1. Very interesting background to this great production. I loved the intimacy of the performances. Best Lear I've seen.

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