james debate
james debate

Friday, 12 May 2017

It's time to take this seriously. I can say with little doubt and no shred of hyperbole that what is going on in Washington DC right now is among the most important political events that will happen in our lifetimes. A scandal the likes of which we have not seen since Watergate, a crisis of democracy and American sovereignty we have never seen. It's rare that you can say this, but last week we witnessed an event of truly historic magnitude.

donald trump james comey criminal watergate tuesday saturday massacre coverup cover up conspiracy republican
The Trump administration has been coming under fire in recent weeks in relation to a number of scandals, from domestic emoluments, to Betsy Devos' pay-to-play, a crackdown on the freedom of press, and of course the headline act, possible collusion with Russia to violate federal law. His first 100 days in office have been wracked by allegations of corruption and criticisms over a lack of transparency. But last Tuesday night we saw something entirely new, something unprecedented in modern democracy.

On Tuesday night, Donald Trump fired the FBI Director James Comey, the very man who was currently leading an investigation against Trump's administration regarding possible illegal ties to the Russian Government. Now Trump will handpick Comey's replacement. The man currently under investigation... will choose the person who leads the investigation against him.

It's a difficult story to blog about, as things are moving at a ridiculously fast pace, with new revelations appearing by the hour. Since I began this post, Comey's deputy, now acting Director of the FBI, has announced that future investigation progress will no longer be shared with the White House. Mere hours later, Trump tweeted threatening messages at Comey, hinting that he has been taping his meetings in the White House, and that these would be made public if Comey doesn't stay silent.

Things are fast spiralling out of control, and it's arguable that this is already a bigger crisis than Watergate. But let's rewind a little bit, what's all this Russia stuff about?

Russia hacks the 2016 Election
Russian hackers are known to have made a concerted effort to influence the 2016 US election, a process which involved a campaign of online misinformation and propaganda, hacking of voter rolls and electoral systems, and most crucially, the hacking of Democratic Party officials and theft of information from those systems.

The US intelligence community, including the FBI and CIA, have very clearly and publicly confirmed these facts to be true, and further have stated in no uncertain terms that the election interference appears to have been conducted with the intention of helping the campaign of Donald Trump. Trump, for his part, appeared on numerous occasions to have been encouraging the Russians to hack his opponent during the election, but that's only the beginning of his campaign's worrying Russian connections.

Very briefly, Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort was forced to resign and is now the subject of criminal investigation for his connections to Russian and Ukrainian politicians. Mike Flynn was appointed as National Security Advisor by Trump, but forced to resign after it transpired that he had held multiple meetings with Russian diplomat Sergey Kislyak, commonly referred to as the "Russian Spymaster" for his connections to espionage. Flynn received payments and made frequent trips to Russia, and then lied about all of it. He is currently under criminal investigation. Jeff Sessions, Trump's Attorney General, also held multiple meetings with the Russian Spymaster. His connections were deemed serious enough that he was forced to recuse himself from getting involved in the Russia investigation as head of the Department of Justice.

From Carter Page, to Roger Stone, Jared Kushner, and even Trump's son Eric, the list of Trump connections to Russia seems endless, and every day it seems more and more come to light. And that's even before we get to the dossier revealed by high ranking British intelligence officials, which indicates that Russia has incriminating personal and financial information on Trump, and was deemed by intelligence agencies to be "credible".

So why did Trump fire Comey?
Considering the scale of Trump's apparent Russia connections, it clearly looks bad for the President to have fired the man leading those investigations. The fact that the recommendation was apparently made by Jeff Sessions, the man who was supposed to have recused himself from getting involved with Russia, makes it all the more shocking.

The move has drawn immediate comparisons with the Saturday Night Massacre, the day when Richard Nixon fired the Watergate special prosecutor in order to cover up his criminal actions. Needless to say, it didn't end well for Nixon.

But is there any actual indication that Trump has done anything wrong?

Sure enough, the President has the power to fire the Director of the FBI, but typically only in the event of serious wrongdoing. FBI Directors are given 10 year terms specifically for this reason, to insulate them from politics and the whim of the President. It has historically taken actual illegality or major ethics breaches to justify such a dismissal. In 1993 when Bill Clinton dismissed Director William Sessions (no relation to the current Attorney General), Sessions had been the subject of a major investigation, the conclusion of which stated that he had committed significant wrongdoing. No such conclusions have been reached for Comey.

So what is Trump's justification for this extraordinary expansion of executive power? If you can believe it, Trump's justification is that Comey was too harsh on Hillary Clinton during her sham of an email investigation during the election. That's right, Trump fired Comey for taking the (admittedly unwise) actions that in all likelihood gave Donald Trump the Presidency.

Now let's be clear, I have major reservations about the way Comey handled that investigation. His actions were inappropriate and unusual. However they are clearly not sufficient to justify the second ever FBI Director dismissal, he committed no illegal act, or breach of ethics. This has even drawn criticism from Trump's own party, with Republican Senator John McCain expressing his belief that the sacking was not justified.

But more to the point, only a complete idiot would believe this pretext for a second. First of all, Trump and Jeff Sessions were wildly effusive in their praise over Comey's handling of the investigation during the election, for obvious reasons. Secondly these actions took place a year ago, so why are they only firing him now, six months into Trump's Presidency?

Comey was fired on the very day the Russia investigation issued its first batch of grand jury subpoenas against current and former associates of the Trump administration, one day after the investigation requested access to financial records of business dealings between Trump and Russia, and less than a week after Comey requested additional funds and personnel for his investigation from the Department of Justice.

Donald Trump wants us to believe that he fired James Comey for taking actions that helped Trump win the election, actions that both he and Sessions had supported previously, actions that took place a year ago, but rather than fire him at the time, they coincidentally waited until the very week that Comey's investigation against Trump was beginning to pick up steam. As a pretext it is almost laughable for how non-sensical and brazenly untrue it is. Only an astoundingly naive or wilfully ignorant individual could possibly be fooled by it.

And then there was the dismissal itself. Carried out while Comey was on the opposite side of the country so that he couldn't protect evidence, conveyed to the FBI by Trump's personal bodyguard, like some mafioso, so as to not tip off anyone with the Bureau. The dismissal letter itself. The letter is written with the pretext that this dismissal has absolutely nothing to do with Russia, and then Trump inexplicably adds the absolutely incredible paragraph "While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgement of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau".

Why is this paragraph in the letter? If the dismissal has nothing to do with Russia, why bring it up? Why say this at all? Presumably Comey knows what he and Trump have discussed previously, so why does Trump need to remind him? There is literally no reason for Trump to include this paragraph in the letter, unless the intention is that other people read it and conclude that Trump is not under investigation over Russia. It is an utterly insane paragraph that reads less like a boss firing an employee and more like a five year old forging a letter to the headmaster from his parents. It makes absolutely no sense regardless of whether or not you believe Trump's ridiculous pretext. Again drawing criticism from his own party, Republican Congressman Justin Amash even went so far as to call it just plain "bizarre".

It is now undeniable: The President is trying to seize control of the police
The timing of this dismissal, along with the embarrassingly flimsy pretext, would seem to suggest a cover up.

Leaks from within the Trump administration appear to support this, reporting that Trump had become enraged over the continuing investigation into Russian connections, that he wanted Comey fired, and that about a week ago he had explicitly ordered the Department of Justice to come up with an excuse to fire him. Further leaks from the FBI state explicitly that they believe Comey was fired because he refused to give Trump his personal loyalty and because he refused to preview his testimony for Trump behind closed doors.

If it wasn't obvious enough that this firing was motivated by Comey's Russia investigation, consider that this appears to follow a concerted trend. This is the third person that Trump has fired who was involved in investigations into Russia, the others being Sally Yates and Preet Bharara. Correlation does not equal causation, but whatever the reason if you were investigating Trump's Russia connections, chances are you got fired by him, and that demands explanation.

Consider also the pattern of behaviour which includes sending threatening messages to those testifying on the Russia investigation, including Comey and Sally Yates on the day she was set to testify. Many have described these actions as textbook witness intimidation.

It's not a matter of ideology or affiliation, there is no one in Washington who seriously believes any of the rationale coming out of the White House. These are lies, so evident in their dishonesty that it's simply laughable. In the days that follow Comey's dismissal, Trump's people don't even seem to be pretending that it's true. Both Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Trump appear to have confirmed that the sacking was related to Russia, which would mean that at the very least Jeff Sessions violated his recusal, and Trump has committed obstruction of justice.

And yet, the official line coming out of the White House is that it is "time to move on" from the Russia investigation, in spite of what appears to be an obvious cover up. Most dangerous of all, the bulk of the Republican Party appears willing to acquiesce.

The complicity of the Republican Party
There has been a lockstep propaganda surge from all across the Trump administration and Republican Party. First there was the hard-to-believe claim from the White House that they had no idea that this action would cause an outcry. This was followed by a bizarre press conference from Sean Spicer, carried out while hiding in the bushes and demanding journalists turn off all lights and cameras. But perhaps most bizarre has been the performance of Huckabee Sanders, a petulantly hostile and wholly unprofessional press conference in which she unleashed vitriolic and petty insults on Comey, a career lawman.

The Republican information minister Kellyanne Conway went on TV trying to convince everyone that the fact that Trump wrote in his own letter than he was not under investigation was definitive proof that he was innocent, and that the fact that Trump didn't mention Russia in his letter (even though he did!) was definitive proof that the firing had nothing to do with Russia. Simply childish in its absurdity and obvious deceit. Then barely a few hours later Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell repeated Conway's lines almost word for word. Word for word. It points to an obvious co-ordinated effort by all party members.

This response has been palpably absurd, and I'll say again, childish in how obviously deceitful the whole thing looks.

Through all of this, the Republican Party is refusing to authorise an independent special investigation, incredibly claiming that one isn't needed, since there is already an ongoing investigation in the Republican controlled House, the Republican controlled Senate, and the soon-to-be Trump controlled FBI. The Republicans seriously want us to believe that they are going to investigate themselves thoroughly and impartially with no oversight, and then when they inevitably conclude there to be no evidence of wrongdoing among their own ranks, they expect everyone to accept this as a perfectly valid and objective assessment.

This is the big difference between how the Trump scandal unfolds and Watergate. Nixon tried all the same tricks as Trump, but in that instance Nixon's fellow Republicans broke ranks and took a stand against their own party for the sake of country. So far this has not happened with the Republican Party of 2017. Several Republicans have expressed concerns, but as of yet none have displayed a willingness to put country before party. This is clearly hugely concerning from an administration of justice point of view, but more to the point if actual crimes are being committed, then it indicates the legal complicity of much of the Republican Party. This could get messy.

What does all this mean?
This is arguably an even greater scandal than Watergate. Watergate was a crime of petty political theft, abuse of power, and associated cover up. It was a test of American democracy, but no more than that. Trump's Russia scandal and its associated crises are no less than an existential threat.

A hostile foreign power has already managed to directly influence our elections. They appear to have compromised our very Government with the current administration absolutely lousy with apparent agents and security risks. The administration has spent the last 6 months attacking the free media and the independent judiciary, and now appears to be attempting to seize control of the police force. All the while, the Republican Party appears perfectly content to let these events continue.

This is no longer a functioning democracy. When a President wields absolute power and subverts the very rule of law, that's not what happens in America. That's what happens in a tinpot dictatorship or banana republic. If the President is seriously allowed to just fire the police when they pry into his personal business, it eliminates any sense of legitimacy or confidence in the authorities and the rules which protect the citizenry from abuses of power.

If Trump manages to get away with this obvious cover up, if the police ceases to remain independent, if media freedoms continue to be eroded, then America can no longer claim to be a free democracy, it becomes a sham like Putin's Russia or Erdogan's Turkey.

So what now?
Now we wait. As I said, things have progressed at a lightning pace in the days since this political bombshell.

On Friday, the FBI raided the Annapolis offices of a Republican Party consulting firm. Later that day, the new acting Director of the FBI indicated that the White House is no longer to be trusted, and won't be given progress updates on the investigation. Leaks from FBI sources are coming to light at an alarming rate. And there you have Huckabee Sanders, acting like a bad SNL parody, feigning disbelief that anyone is still even talking about Russia. Anyone remember Comical Ali?

Even more concerning have been Trump's actions since Tuesday, tweeting threats at private citizens, indicating that he employs a Nixonian policy of recording all White House meetings, and shifting wildly in his explanation behind Comey's sacking. It just gets more and more absurd.

But perhaps the most shocking event took place on Wednesday, mere hours after firing James Comey. Trump met with Russian foreign dignitaries in the White House, behind closed doors providing exclusive access to Russian controlled state media, and absolutely no access to American media. We've reached a point where the Russian Government has moved into the White House and shut out the free press. This whole sorry ordeal was perfectly summed up by foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, who when questioned about the Comey sacking, disdainfully and mockingly replied "Really? You're kidding! You're kidding!". The Russian Government is literally laughing at us from within the White House.

But there is still hope. As it stands, the FBI is still under the stewardship of Comey's deputy Andrew McCabe, by all accounts an independent and unimpeachable lawman. If he can step up the Russia investigation before Trump manages to install his own puppet, we may yet see justice. Then there are all the other good men and women within the FBI who will no doubt make every effort to resist political influence over the investigation. The FBI has always been a beacon of integrity for America, so don't count them out yet.

Elsewhere we should be watching Rod Rosenstein, the deputy Attorney General and by all accounts a thoroughly honest and independent public servant. With Sessions recused from all things Russia, Rosenstein is in charge of managing that process, and if necessary appointing an independent prosecutor. Rosenstein allegedly threatened to quit in the aftermath of the Comey firing, it's possible the only reason he has not is to ensure the neutrality of the investigation. He may yet blow this whole thing wide open.

Lastly there is the Republican Party. There are plenty of honest, good public servants in that party, and the pressure is now on for them to decide if they want to do what is right, or just follow the party line. If Trump's approval continues to decline following this outcry, expect to start seeing them jump ship. And if not, there's always the possibility for a Democratic wave in 2018.

This is probably the single greatest test to our national identity that we have ever faced. A great deal depends on whether the Republicans in power ultimately decide to put party first, or country, and even more so on whether Americans finally decide to start caring about politics and vote in 2018. What unfolds over the coming months and years will determine whether the most powerful nation on Earth remains free and democratic, or lurches into autocracy and corruption. This matters, and it's something to which we should all be paying close attention

Friday, 5 May 2017

Created by Archie Comics
Network The CW, Netflix
Starring KJ Apa, Lili Reinhart, Camila Mendes, Cole Sprouse, Luke Perry
Genre Mystery, Teen drama
Running Time 42 mins each

riverdale archie comics cw netflix veronica jughead molly ringwald luke perry

What an utterly bizarre idea for a TV show. Riverdale, as some of you may be able to guess, is based on the iconic Archie Comics series, that classic slice of Americana which is set in the fictional town of Riverdale.

Some 76 years old now, the Archie series is notable for having stayed surprisingly true to the wholesome "aw shucks" sensibilities of its era. Through its many iterations and spin-offs, Archie has always followed the innocent lives of the high school students of small-town Riverdale, in particular Archie Andrews, his best friend Jughead, and his two romantic interests Betty and Veronica. Together they drink malts, play baseball, go to the drive-in, and various other American cliches of a time gone-by. The tone is almost universally kept as light as possible, with rarely a more serious dilemma on hand than awkward dates, or try-outs for the football team. Despite the focus on teen romance, sex and sexuality of any kind is very rarely if ever referenced.

Notable spin-offs include Josie and the Pussycats, a series about a girl band who dress up like cats, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch, about a teenager, who also happens to be a witch. It's all really about as light and fluffy as anything can get. So when The CW announced a TV show based on the characters of this comic book series, the last thing I expected to see was Riverdale.

Riverdale is a dark, gritty reimagining of the Archie world. In this Riverdale, people get murdered, students have affairs with teachers, homes are broken by divorce, poverty, alcoholism and gang violence. Crime, jail, promiscuity and overt hyper-sexualisation set the backdrop for shenanigans here. The tone is about as far from its source material as it's possible to get. It's kind of like doing a dark reboot of Snoopy. It's a very weird idea.

As a longtime fan of the comicbook series, I was conflicted between excitement at the promise of a TV adaptation, and skepticism towards its darker interpretation. Ultimately, Riverdale didn't make this year's Hot List, but it came within a whisker of the final cut. My worry was no so much the change in tone, but the fact that these teenage melodramas are about a dime a dozen, and from the implausibly attractive no-name leads to the hyper-sexualised content, this felt like nothing more than jumping on the bandwagon. The OC or One Tree Hill, but with Archie characters. Fortunately I was wrong.

Now don't get me wrong. This is a very silly show. The melodrama here is indeed dialled up to a 10, with characters who seem to love nothing more than handling a situation in the most dramatic and over-the-top way as possible. The dialogue is often similarly hackneyed and predictable, while the plot twists and relationship rollercoasters are so ridiculous as to elicit groans. But despite, or possibly because of this, it is all so much fun to watch.

The trick is that Riverdale is extremely self-aware of its own campness. The writers have managed to strike that very difficult balance between cheesy good fun and trash, buoyed by surprisingly capable performances that know how to straddle the line between comedy and drama just the right amount. They never take themselves too seriously and neither should you.

The cast really deserves great credit. They play their roles so earnestly, and with such wry humour. There really isn't a weak member among them, but in particular Camila Mendes and Cole Sprouse are revelations, while the host of familiar faces who play the various parents are a delight. As a longtime fan it is extremely good fun just to see the various ways in which characters have been re-imagined for the show, from Betty's repressed demons to Jughead's new edginess, Veronica's considerably more complex personality, and Cheryl Blossom's wickedly sinister new persona.

It also helps that the quality of production is so impressive. Visually Riverdale can be stunning to look at, with a heavily stylised design reminiscent of Twin Peaks or Pushing Daisies. The music is very well chosen, and the direction that brings everything together is pretty excellent. This is an extremely slick show.

The longer you watch, the more you begin to see just how clever the show really is. The writing is fully of witty references which often riff on the cast-members and source material in surprisingly fourth-wall-breaking ways. In one example, the actress who plays Barb on Stranger Things appears as Ethel Muggs, and someone eventually comments "#justiceforethel", in reference to the Barb hashtag that went viral. In another, characters played by former teen stars Luke Perry and Molly Ringwald attend a school dance and comment "Remember when this used to be our lives" in obvious reference to their own careers. Sometimes it can all be a little too smart for its own good (if I hear them reference another Netflix show I will cringe). Silly it may be, but its knowing brand of camp is also exceptionally addictive, and the constant twists make this great television for the age of binge-watching.

Despite fears that this would simply be the latest in a long line of trashy teen dramas, Riverdale consistently exceeds expectations. In fact, it gets considerably better as it goes on, as it becomes increasingly confident in its narrative style and unique voice.  Once you let yourself get caught up in the silliness, there's a lot to like about Riverdale, and that goes both for fans of the source material and newcomers alike.

Monday, 27 March 2017

Developed by Nintendo
Published by Nintendo
Genre Action-Adventure
Platform Switch, Wii U

zelda breath of the wild switch skyrim wii u videogame review ocarina nintendo

There are few videogame series as celebrated as The Legend of Zelda. As one of Nintendo's core franchises dating all the way back to the 1980s, Zelda has become synonymous with quality, and almost every entry in the series has brought widespread critical acclaim.

It's not just that Zelda games have tended to be very good games, they've also tended to be landmarks in the industry. The first instalment in the series changed the way people looked at games with its non-linear structure and vast world. Then Ocarina of Time re-invented gaming again by successfully making the jump into three dimensions, pioneering many of 3D gaming's core mechanics that are still a mainstay of the industry today. Almost every 3D game owes something to the work done in Ocarina's development.

But it's safe to say that the series had been on the wane in recent years. The last two main entries, Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword, were warmly enough received, but were seen by many to be simply retreading what had already been done in previous games. Then there is the recent fixation on churning out HD remakes rather than new titles, and one can see why many pundits had begun to call Zelda a series in stagnation, lacking in fresh ideas. This was a franchise in desperate need of a shot in the arm to take back its mantle at the cutting edge of gaming.

The good news is that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (BotW) accomplishes this, and does so in ways that wildly exceed even our most optimistic expectations.

Re-thinking core gameplay mechanics
The thinking behind BotW is clear. Zelda is a series that has always clung tight to its traditions; every game follows the same roughly linear structure of exploration and dungeons, collect 7 of some maguffin to beat the big bad, and along the way pick up the Hookshot, the Bow, the Hammer, and all the other iconic tools of the Zelda series. From the outset BotW aims to tear down all these familiar tropes and completely re-imagine what it means to be a Zelda game.

This break with tradition permeates every element of design in BotW. The inventory system borrows heavily from the RPG genre, with dozens of distinct variants of every type of item, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. This works the same way for armor and clothing as well, with several different outfits to discover instead of just the usual green tunic that Link always wears. Such a mechanic ensures everyone's Link is unique and different, from the gear he uses to the way he looks. Since many of these items are discovered in the game world or picked up from battles, it also adds a certain player sentimentality to the item. I'll look at a particular helm and remember the mini adventure that led me to finding it.

There is a big new emphasis on crafting. The world is full of harvestable items, whether you're foraging for fruit, or hunting for meat, collecting insects or mining ores, and all of it can be used to craft weapons and gear, as well as cook food and elixirs. The cooking element in particular is an absolute joy, with all the different food items combining in different recipes and quantities to produce different meals with various effects. It's a deceptively complex system, and yet incredibly intuitive. It's also a surprising amount of fun. It's hard to imagine how something as simple as a cooking mechanic could be as delightful as it is, but Nintendo have somehow made a highly compelling system here.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how BotW re-thinks the Zelda formula. Instead of one preset horse, there are now several breeds wandering the wilderness that Link must catch, tame and develop a bond with in order to ride effectively, and these are all customisable as well. There is a degradation system for weapons and other items, which means they break after certain number of uses, forcing the player into efficient inventory management. There are a near endless supply of side quests, something which has always been an afterthought in a Zelda game. There is even an encyclopedia in which the player can discover and document every item, animal, plant and enemy in the game world, just for the obsessive completionists. I could go on.

Fully open-world
But all these new mechanics and tweaks to the familiar would mean little without the big new revelation, the design of the world itself. For the first time in the series, BotW is a fully open world game. Zelda has always had a big, expansive map to explore, but until now it has always simply been a series of skyboxes with walls around it. In Ocarina of Time, if you look into the distance and see a mountain, you can't really go there, you have to go through a designated entryway to take you to a completely separately rendered world which is designed to look like you went there. By contrast, BotW is fully open. That means when you see that mountain in the distance, you can go there, no loading screens, no walls, invisible or otherwise, no connecting entrances and exits. Just one big open world to explore.

This world stretches out in all directions. It would take hours to traverse, even when familiar with the terrain. Yet despite it's size, the world is impressively detailed and has the feeling of every inch being hand-crafted. It helps in this regard that there is a lot of diversity in the locations you can visit, from sandy deserts to snowy mountains, forests, jungles, beaches, and all the classic Zelda locations.

Sure, there are many games nowadays which implement big open worlds, but none quite like this. Even games like Skyrim and Far Cry resort to invisible walls to prevent you from going where the developer doesn't intend for you to go.

Those games typically present you with an array of map and quest markers, meaning that despite the seemingly open-ended world, you typically find yourself just journeying from marker to marker, clearing quests like a chore. BotW takes a different approach, telling you practically nothing about what's out there in the world until you find it for yourself. Instead of a to-do list, the player is presented with the unknown, and forced to explore in order to progress.

So whereas in most open-world games the desire to explore ultimately comes from a marker on your map, or a checklist of quests to complete, BotW has a more intuitive guidng purpose: a mysterious light on the top of a mountain, a pillar of smoke rising from the jungle. You see these things while wandering about the world, and instinctively you want to go find out what's there. It doesn't even matter if there's little of importance to be found (though fortunately this is rarely the case), the mystery of the unknown and the adventure of discovery genuinely gives players its own reward. It's a cliche to say "it's the journey, not the destination", but in this case pure exploration is legitimately such an unqualified joy. It taps into something altogether more fundamental than most open-world games, an instinct to explore and discover what's out there, and it's something this game pulls off brilliantly.

To give an example: on a whim I decided to go explore a region where there was seemingly no relevance to the main story, a secluded jungle where, even after way too many hours of playing I had never had reason to venture.  On this random excursion I managed to find in the heart of that jungle waterfalls, incredible scenic beauty, a powerful legendary weapon, a gigantic beast that I had no idea even existed, and ultimately stumbled upon a lovely beach-side town with a series of unique quests and items. It's the sort of thing that you can play the entire game without even realising it's there if you don't go look.

But what really brings the world alive is the attention to detail. Among many little touches, Nintendo have gone to the trouble of implementing a temperature scale which has an impact on the type of clothes you need to wear in order to maintain health, the types of enemies and NPCs, and countless other subtle effects. Food cooks itself when you're in a region of high temperature, wooden weapons burn, metallic weapons attract lightning. Fire weapons can be used to light your way, as well as burn wooden objects. Electricity carries through water. The player is additionally given a number of powers like magnetic levitation, water freezing, time stasis and others. These skills are useful in the main questing and puzzles, but additionally offer new ways to interact with the world.

It is truly remarkable how all these distinct, complex systems interact with one another, often in surprising, probably unintentional, but perfectly valid ways. This is one of those games where the developers really have though of every tiny little detail, no matter how seemingly innocuous. BotW is the type of game that years from now people will still be playing and discovering new things that no one knew existed, things that even the developer probably didn't know you could do.

Technical achievement
And this is what surprised me more than anything, because after many, many hours in this game I have yet to see any bugs, yet to see a fall-through-the-floor glitch, or bugged AI. Everything just somehow works. Compare this to a Bethesda RPG like Skyrim or Fallout, great games, but always horrendously buggy. Yet here is Nintendo, a company with no experience in open-world games, somehow making a huge and complex world, polished to near perfection. And all this on a cartridge the size of my thumbnail. I have absolutely no idea how they have managed this. For all the game's other successes, it really can't be overstated what a remarkable technical achievement BotW is.

But this is by no means a perfect game. The story is pretty by-the-numbers Zelda, and the writing is generally mediocre. Worse still, Nintendo have decided for the first time to implement voice acting in a Zelda game. I'm not necessarily opposed to voice acting in Zelda, but the voice acting here is generally poor by modern standards. This is a huge videogame franchise, they could afford proper actors if they wanted.

It can also be a pretty lonely journey. Previous Zelda games featured a much more interactive supporting cast and character interaction, whereas in BotW you will mostly have to content yourself with paper thin NPCs. It's a pity, because BotW actually features one of the better and more fully fleshed out supporting casts of the series, particularly Princess Zelda herself who is a surprisingly complex character this time around. The trouble is that these characters are all given about two minutes of screen time throughout the entire game, and almost always under quest-specific conditions, disappearing forever immediately afterwards.

In addition, while there are many side quests, far too many of them resort to the tired fetch quest formula of "collect x number of grasshoppers for no apparent reason" that I think we all could have lived without.

But while these flaws are legitimate, and worth mentioning, they really don't detract from how excellent the rest of the product is. Long after the main story is completed and gone and you've forgotten the dodgy story presentation, you'll still want to go out and see what else is waiting to be found in this world.

And this is really what makes the game great. The main story is just so so, there are only a handful of main story dungeons, but the world in which the story is set is just so incredibly well realised, so interactive and rewarding that you'll want to spend hours losing yourself in it. It's the delightful NPCs you encounter, the endless secrets and surprises you'll stumble across in the wilderness, and the fact that every adventure, every keepsake you collect marks your Link, your story, as unique.

Nintendo have pulled something of a wonder here with another landmark in the gaming industry. They've managed to pull off open-world gaming at the first attempt, and in a way that few if any games ever have. Breath of the Wild may just have supplanted Ocarina of Time as the definitive Zelda game, and will undoubtedly go down as one of the all time greats.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

So in the last 24 hours we have once again been collectively reeling at the shock of yet another tragedy, the likes of which have become far too frequent in this world. And yet, despite the embarrassing fabrications of junk media outlets, business is carrying on as usual in London.

london westminster parliament attack united open undaunted best city
This city has after all been through much worse than some ass-hatted lunatic with a knife, and it's important to remember that, and maintain a sense of perspective at a time like this. Fortunately I'm pleased to see what has so far been a very measured response from my compatriots, which is no less than I would expect. It serves as a reminder than even in the midst of great tragedy, there are many stories from this day in which the people of this great city can take pride.

1. London has the best emergency response in the world
From the counter-terrorism intelligence services, to the police, the paramedics, and all manor of public servants taking action from land, air, and river, no city in the world boasts an emergency response team as well prepared and finely drilled as London.

We see them running drills and exercises all over the city, year after year, and yet in all but the most exceptional of circumstances, their procedures remain purely academic. So for them to be able to react instantly, after years of the hypothetical, and immediately spring into action is something truly to be admired.

The quick reactions of the armed security took down the attacker before further damage could be done. Within minutes the paramedics were tending to the injured. Almost immediately lockdowns were in effect all around Parliament Square and the surrounding area. Their speed and competence is a true source of pride for this city. Indeed, it is a testament to the skill and hard work of these departments that we rarely have to see them in action in the first place.

2. Tales of heroism from civilians
But these types of deeds are not unique just to the professionals. The news today is full of stories of civilian bystanders looking out for one another, doing their best to tend to the wounded, alert nearby security personnel, and generally what they can to help.

It was the work of ordinary Londoners that managed to recover the injured Andreea Cristea, who fell from Westminster Bridge into the Thames, who managed to treat and comfort the injured on the bridge until the ambulances arrived moments later. And then there is Tobias Ellwood MP, who ignored the cautious warnings of his security personnel to stay onsite and perform CPR on PC Keith Palmer, the heroic officer who stopped the attacker at the cost of his life.

You can tell a lot about people by how they react in an emergency. In this instance there were many who showed the courage to stay and help one another. Londoners are good people.

3. It's very difficult to obtain a weapon in this country, thankfully
It has been more than a decade now since a terrorist attack was staged in this country using anything more damaging than a knife. We live in a country where strict regulation has ensured that it is next to impossible to obtain a gun, or materials to build a bomb, and yesterday proves yet again the extent to which these laws protect the public. Imagine how much worse it could have been if the attacker emerged from his car holding an automatic weapon, or armed with an explosive device.

Yesterday's shooting in Wisconsin, which had more fatalities than the London attack, has gone largely unnoticed by the media. But it serves as a stark contrast to what happened here where, armed with only a knife, the London attacker was barely able to reach a single individual after emerging from his vehicle before being taken down. Westminster is one of the most crowded sites in the country. If not for our sane policies, the casualty count would certainly have been much higher.

4. London remains open, and gets on with it
But the number one symbol of pride for the British people from all of this is simply that we have not let these events change our way of life. London remains open to everyone, tolerant of all people, and is carrying on with business as usual.

We took on the Romans, the Saxons, the Danes, the French, William Wallace, the Black Plague, the Roundheads, the Great Fire, Napoleon, the Nazis and the Blitz, and we're still here. Some asshat with a knife isn't going to get to us.

So in spite of yesterday's horrific events, I take heart from the inspiring example set by my fellow Londoners, a city that handles even the most dire of situations with grace and compassion. If the attacker wanted to divide us, and show our town to be a place of hatred and mistrust, they failed. London remains united, undaunted, and open.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Welcome back to The Ephemeric's 2017 Hot List. I hope you enjoyed last week's entry covering the essential theatre in 2017. This week we will be having a look at the most exciting new music due for release in the coming year.

best anticipated new music 2017 albums hot list

2016 will be remembered as an exceptional year of music. It says everything that major releases from big names such as The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Radiohead weren't even the highlights of the year. Instead, the best moments came from unlikely sources, none more unlikely than the near-mythical return of The Avalanches, releasing their miraculous sophomore album Wildflower out of nowhere after 16 years in production. Elsewhere, Michael Kiwanuka followed up his excellent debut with an even better second album that cemented his place as one of the absolute top songwriters of today. Strong releases from The 1975 and The Last Shadow Puppets, along with exciting debuts from Christine and the Queens and The Lemon Twigs, topped off a really excellent year across the board for music.

This year looks like it might be even more memorable, headlined by several mega-sized comebacks including The Killers, Arcade Fire, and Gorillaz, while old favourites like The xx and Fleet Foxes are also set to return. Add to that some unusually high profile debut acts and there is much to be excited about in 2017. Often, the music Hot List is the hardest to put together, but this year it practically writes itself. So here's our list of the top albums to keep an eye on in 2017, starting with number 15:

15. "Pure Comedy" by Father John Misty 

father john misty fleet foxes pure comedy 2017 best most anticipated musicWe'll start with Father John Misty, the former Fleet Foxes band member, whose last album has transformed this solo side project into the hot thing in indie folk. This year he returns with a new album, Pure Comedy.

Those who know Fleet Foxes have a pretty good idea of what to expect: soulful folk with a lyrically dark tint. His last album produced some fine tracks, most notably True Affection and Chateau Lobby #4. The lead single from his latest album Real Love Baby suggests a lighter, more optimistic tone for this one.

Now a bona fide star in his own right, there's a lot more buzz about Pure Comedy, and promises to be one of the bigger releases of the year. Expect it to release early April.

Release Date: 7 April, 2017

14. Anteros (New band)

anteros debut album breakfast 2017 best most anticipated music Anteros are one of those up and coming acts that have been floating around for a few years, having previously featured in such industry bellwethers as the BBC Sound of the year shortlist, and almost making the cut right here on the Hot List this time last year.

The appeal is clear from the first listen, these are very fine purveyors of exciting indie pop music. Even though there's no album yet, you can get a decent idea of their style from the singles they have released, including Anteros and Breakfast. Solid, radio friendly fare, it's easy to see why they are so hotly tipped for mainstream success.

A few more singles and EPs to their name in 2016, and now the buzz has started for a full studio album, expected to drop sometime in 2017.

Release Date: TBA 2017

13. Phoenix

phoenix new album best most anticipated album 2017French alternative rock band Phoenix has been around for a number of years now, but it wasn't until recently with the successful releases of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix and Bankrupt that they broke into the mainstream.

Now the band is returning with a much anticipated, as yet unnamed, follow up, due to arrive sometime in 2017. Little is known so far, but the band recently updated all their social media with a new, mysterious placeholder image, while they have confirmed tour dates throughout 2017, their first since 2014. There's something coming for sure.

No new songs have been revealed, but if they can match the quality of previous hits such as Lisztomania then we can all live happily ever after.

Release Date: TBA 2017

12. "Plural" by Electric Guest

electric guest plural mondo album best most anticipated new music 2017 A previous alumnus of our very own Hot List, Electric Guest made waves with their debut album five years ago, Mondo. Part of the reason for that was undeniably the presence of industry kingmaker Danger Mouse on the production team.

The result was smoother than a glass of fine scotch, with wonderful, confidently composed tracks like Troubleman and Awake. Flawless, disco-infused pop with enough freshness to stand out in a crowded genre.

The follow up, Plural, does not appear to have Danger Mouse involved, and the band looks to be doubling down on disco, if first single Dear to Me is anything to go by. A little cheesy? Sure, but undeniably fun. That second album follow up to a successful debut is always a tough step, let's see how they handle it.

Release Date: 17 February, 2017

11. "Process" by Sampha (New band)

sampha process without most anticipated new debut albums 2017Another one that's been hotly tipped for a few years now, originally appearing in many of the big publications' hot tips for 2015, almost making this very Hot List as far back in 2014. Now Sampha finally has a debut album due, Process.

For the uninitiated, Without is the song that started off all the hype a few years back. It typifies the artist to a tee, sonically adventurous and deftly crafted R&B pop. His newer tracks, like Timmy's Prayer carry on in the same manner, but indicate a refining of the songwriter's signature style.

Releasing in early February (which may or may not be in the past depending on when this blog is posted), this will certainly be an early one to watch and a prominent release of 2017.

Release Date: 3 February, 2017

10. "Dirty Projectors" by Dirty Projectors

dirty projectors keep your name new albums 2017 most anticipatedContinuing in an experimental vein, here's Dirty Projectors, a band of unquestionable musical brilliance, albeit one of mercurial execution.

Frontman David Longstreth has been described as a molecular gastronomist of music, with a musical style that is so unwaveringly bold, that his experiments land wide of the mark just as often as they hit it dead on. When the music works though, it can be spectacular. Previous work ranges dramatically from meandering pop odysseys of Bitte Orca to more simple folk stylings in Swing Lo Magellan. This is a band that likes to keep their fans guessing.

The new eponymous album is due in February. If lead single Keep Your Name is anything to go by, we're in for another sharp turn into the strange and wonderful.

Release Date: 24 February, 2017

9. Declan McKenna (New band)

declan mckenna isombard new debut album best most anticipated new music 2017 Declan McKenna is possibly one of the hottest young artists in pop music right now, widely featured in the "one to watch" lists of the industry's most influential pundits, with expectations high ahead of his first full studio album.

Despite still being a teenager, he already has a number of widely praised hit singles to his name, including Isombard, Paracetamol, and Brazil. Solid tracks which display a songwriting confidence well beyond his tender age.

The first album should be due in 2017, with recording having been completed through much of 2016, and an expected release of May. James Ford, producer for bands such as Arctic Monkeys, Depeche Mode and Florence and the Machine is producing, an indication perhaps of where the record label sees McKenna headed in terms of stardom potential. Big one to watch.

Release Date: May 2017

8. Parcels (New band)

parcels hideout best new most anticipated album debut 2017 musicAnother 2017 debut, Parcels delight in the kind of rapturous 70s throwback electronic pop that has earned them plaudits and comparisons with the likes of Daft Punk and Destroyer.

A few wonderfully smooth singles and EPs have yielded an impressive start, with Older and Gamesofluck particular standouts so far. A visually striking live performance style has also helped garner attention from the industry, and there's plenty of buzz surrounding their planned tours later in the year.

Now the debut studio album is in production and what we have seen bodes well. I'm expecting this one towards the end of 2017.

Release Date: TBA 2017

7. "Under Stars" by Amy Macdonald

amy macdonald under stars down by the water new album best most anticipated music 2017The return of an old favourite is always exciting, and Amy Macdonald has earned that status. Storming onto the scene at the incredible young age of 17 with brilliant songs like This is the Life, Slow it Down, and Mr. Rock and Roll, Amy is surely one of the great songwriting talents of her generation.

She has only gone from strength to strength since then, and returns with a new album Under Stars in 2017, her first studio album since 2012. So far only one track has been revealed, the gorgeous acoustic track Down by the Water.

I'm very excited for this one, if the rest of the album has the quality of its first single, then this could well be one of the albums of 2017.

Release Date: 17 February, 2017

6. "I See You" the xx 

the xx i see you jamie xx music best new most anticipated album 2017London's Mercury Prize winning three-piece outfit The xx are back in the studio, with their third studio album, I See You due for release in January 2017 (almost certainly the past by now).

Of course the last time we heard from the band was in the form of frontman Jamie xx's award winning solo debut two years back. The xx themselves have an wonderful track record of fine music including singles Islands and VCR.

If new lead single On Hold is anything to go by, the band are taking their trademark low-fi style into adventurous new places, I personally can't wait to see what they come up with. This clearly is a band with the capacity to mix things up creatively. Whatever happens, no doubt this will be one of the big releases of 2017.

Release Date: 13 January, 2017

5. The Japanese House (New band)

the japanese house face like thunder debut album best new anticipated music 2017 The last of our 2017 debutants, The Japanese House have been drumming up a huge amount of hype over the past year or so, and find themselves prime contenders among many pundits' picks for 2017.

Theirs is a well defined sound, dreamy, layered synth pop with melancholy vocals. They've produced some really quite stunning work so far, songs that manage to be powerful and delicate at the same time. Check out Clean and Face Like Thunder for a little taste of what they're about. Fantastic stuff that makes them our pick of the newcomers for this year.

The word is that a debut album will be coming before year end, and if that's the case then that makes them a very exciting one to watch for 2017.

Release Date: TBA 2017

4. Gorillaz

gorillaz phase 4 four new album damon albarn best most anticipated new music 2017 Damon Albarn is undoubtedly music royalty for his work he has done solo and with Blur, but it's arguably his side project Gorillaz which has garnered the most widespread success.

This time last year Gorillaz announced their return, and their plans for a new album, now expected to be released in 2017. "Phase 4" of the Gorillaz project as it were. Beyond this, details are thin at the moment, with the exception of the audacious Hallelujah Money, a track which may or may not even be on the upcoming album (supposedly it's a one off like Doncamatic). Whatever the case, if the final product is half as good as the group's previous album Plastic Beach then we're in for a treat.

Gorillaz of course are known for their eclectic mix of styles, from hip hop to dance, and plenty more besides. Best known for tracks like 19-2000Feel Good Inc, and On Melancholy Hill. But this is only the tip of the iceberg, and I await with real interest to see what crazy machinations Albarn and co come up with this time.

Release Date: Summer 2017

3. "Ylajali" by Fleet Foxes

fleet foxes ylajali helplessness blues 2017 new album best new anticipated music Now we get to the real highlights, three albums that were simply impossible to rank in order. Eventually, after much soul-searching, Fleet Foxes have taken third place, with their upcoming album Ylajali.

Fleet Foxes are a folk rock band that simply everyone should listen to, like Mumford and Sons, but with songs that are actually good. Their debut album, particularly lead single White Winter Hymnal, demonstrated that they could write wonderful music. But it was their follow up, the stunning Helplessness Blues, that showed they could write songs with as much intellect as any of the masters. Same beautiful music, but with the soul and poetry of an early Simon & Garfunkel.

So naturally after a six year hiatus, I'm pretty excited by the prospect of a third album. Supposedly it will arrive by the fall of this year. If it's half as good as their last album then we're talking about an album of the year contender.

Release Date: Fall 2017

2. The Killers

the killers brandon flowers 5th fifth new album 2017 best new anticipated musicEveryone knows The Killers. Their hits include such classics as Mr. BrightsideAll These Things I've Done, and Human, among many others. But despite their prominence in modern pop music, there are some who would say that their star has been on the wane in recent years, and they have not released an album now since 2012.

At the same time, frontman Brandon Flowers is fresh from his successful sophomore solo album in 2015, prompting speculation as to whether the group would even return at all, or if he would spend more time pursuing his own career.

The band will hope to set this right in 2017 with their fifth studio album now confirmed to be in production, and a release date tentatively set for summer 2017. Despite the mediocrity of their last album, Battleborn, this is news that should excite music fans everywhere. Flowers remains one of the most creative songwriters in the business, and despite his efforts is always at his best when contrasted by the more grounded notes of his band.

I'm looking forward to this one.  A new album from the Killers is still very much an event, and while we have yet to hear any of these new songs, their track record gives plenty of reason to be optimistic. The summer release date sounds reasonable to me, it coincides with their touring schedule, so we can assume they'll have something to promote, right?

Release Date: Summer 2017

1. Arcade Fire

arcade fire new album 2017 most anticipated best new musicBut The Ephemeric's most hotly anticipated album for 2017 is the as yet untitled fifth studio album from Arcade Fire. The people who brought us such classics as Wake UpRebellion, and Sprawl II.

This band is arguably the most sophisticated in the music business today, and one of the few that can blend commercial appeal with an intellectual depth to which few musicians even aspire. Their last album Reflektor was a Debbie award winner, not to mention a critically acclaimed masterpiece.

Nothing has been revealed yet regarding this newest album, aside from the fact that it's due for release this year. The price of success is high expectation, but frankly we're expecting nothing less than art.

Release Date: TBA 2017

So there you have it folks: The 2017 Hot List. Here's to a fantastic year, and the Hot List will return in 2018!

Monday, 6 February 2017

Welcome back to The Ephemeric's 2017 Hot List. This week we will be having a look at the most exciting theatrical productions coming to the stage in the coming year.

best anticipated new theatre theatrical production 2017 hot list

2016 was a year of some very dazzling productions, from Damon Albarn's wild wonder.land, to Tim Minchin's successful adaptation of Groundhog Day to musical. Elsewhere the National Theatre wowed audiences with two of the year's biggest shows, the Threepenny Opera and Amadeus, while the dream team of Sirs Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart helped sell out the Duke of York's production of No Man's Land in record time.

Now I'm a man who enjoys his theatre, but even by usual standards this year is looking exceptionally well stocked with exciting productions. In 2017 we Londoners will once again be spoilt for choice by the world's greatest theatre town. The National once again hogs some of the year's biggest tickets, but the Royal Court is holding its own by bringing one Sam Mendes back to the London stage. Elsewhere the Almeida continues its revitalisation under Rupert Goold with some of the more exciting productions of the year ahead. So here's our list of the top 10 theatrical productions to keep an eye on in 2017, starting with number 10:

10. "Against" by Christopher Shin, at the Almeida

against london best theatre 2017 almeida christopher shin ben whishawWe begin with one of Britain's most promising young film actors, Ben Whishaw, best known for his role in the recent James Bond movies.

His star turn in the Almeida theatre's latest production, Against, sees Whishaw take on the role of an aerospace billionaire in Silicon Valley. Following an epiphany from God, Whishaw sets out to change the world, but violence stands in his way.

Intriguing concept, with a headline grabbing movie star. But probably the most exciting aspect is the direction of Ian Rickson, a director perhaps best recognised for his work on the acclaimed West End hit, Jerusalem.

A topical, 21st Century fable for the world we live in. This collaboration with the Pulitzer Prize nominated writer Christopher Shin has the potential to be something quite special.

9. "Ugly Lies the Bone" by Lindsey Ferrentino, at the National Theatre

ugly lies the bone lindsey ferrentino national best theatre 2017
The National Theatre's headline act for Spring 2017. Ugly Lies the Bone brings Lindsey Ferrentino's award winning production from New York to the London stage.

A war veteran returns from Afghanistan to her home on the space coast and must come to terms both with the scars of war, and the reality of a home that has changed beyond recognition. Experimenting with groundbreaking virtual reality therapy, she creates a breathtaking new world where she can begin to restore her relationships, her life, and herself.

Rave critical reviews from New York, a highly regarded young writer, and accolades everywhere bode well for this new production. The cast features seasoned theatre and film actors in Buffy Davis and Kate Fleetwood, but the recognisable face for most people will be Kris Marshall of Love Actually fame.

In this age of contrasts between geopolitical instability and the breakthroughs of technology, and the under-reported toll it all takes on those who suffer the worst of it, this is a production that can't help but feel remarkably relevant. This should be one of the big theatre highlights of early 2017.

8. "Hamlet" by William Shakespeare, at the Almeida

london 2017 best theatre hamlet almeida andrew scott sherlock moriarty cumberbatchAnother year, another Hamlet production. This time the Almeida theatre takes a crack at the bard's most famous tragedy, despite the still fresh shadow of the Barbican's recent production looming large.

While the Barbican's production famously starred superstar Benedict Cumberbatch, the Almeida has their own headline grabber in the form of Cumberbatch's Sherlock co-star Andrew Scott, the actor behind that show's Moriarty character. The rest of the cast is equally strong with Juliet Stevenson, Downton Abbey's Jessica Brown Findlay, Angus Wright, and my old school-friend, the up-and-coming Joshua Higgott.

A hugely talented cast and production company, at one of London's most consistent theatres. London has a great tradition of Hamlet productions, and I look forward to seeing the latest.

7. "The Glass Menagerie" by Tennessee Williams, at the Duke of York's Theatre

best theatre 2017 london glass menagerie duke of york tennessee williamsThe classic Tennessee Williams play, The Glass Menagerie, brought to the London stage courtesy of the Duke of York's theatre in the spring of 2017.

Cast includes the Tony award winning Broadway star Cherry Jones, Michael Esper, and Kate O'Flynn, while the behind the scenes crew is stocked with multi-Tony and Olivier award winners including Steven Hoggett, Bob Crowley, and Paul Arditi.

Marshalling all of this into the Duke of York's flagship 2017 production is director John Tiffany, now something of a hot commodity following the success of his Harry Potter and the Cursed Child production last year. It's easy to see why this is being tipped as one of the biggest theatre events of 2017.

6. "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui" by Bertolt Brecht and Bruce Norris, at the Donmar Warehouse

london best theatre 2017 the resistible rise of arturo ui lenny henry bertolt brechtA surprisingly light schedule from Covent Garden's Donmar Warehouse is nevertheless punctuated by a new production of the classic Bertolt Brecht play, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.

Brecht's satirical allegory for the rise of Hitler's Nazi party could not be more relevant given the recent events in world politics, perhaps a little too obviously so. Given the subject matter, the choice of casting comedian Lenny Henry in the starring role seems a bold move, but it is one that has ensured that all tickets have been quickly sold out. We will have to see whether he has the depth to do justice to a more nuanced form of wit.

This one gets started late spring, early summer. Tickets are currently sold out but may become available in limited quantities. Grab some if you can, a show at the Donmar is always worthwhile.

5. "Angels in America" by Tony Kushner, at the National Theatre

london 2017 best theatre angels in america national andrew garfield
Now we're getting to the cream of the crop. Each of this year's top five is an absolute blockbuster of a production and a major event in theatre. First up is Angels in America, the summer tentpole of the National Theatre.

Angels, subtitled "a gay fantasia on national themes", is set in 1980s New York amidst an AIDS crisis, the explosion of mainstream conservatism and deals with issues of life and death, love and sex, heaven and hell. It's another very considered political statement, re-imagining the highly regarded and award winning original text of Tony Kushner with an eye towards modern context.

This promises to be an epic of a production in a literal sense. Split into two separate plays of three hours each, a production and marketing budget to rival a Hollywood film, and starring the Oscar nominated talent of Andrew Garfield. Unsurprisingly tickets are very hard to come by right now.

4. "The Ferryman" by Jez Butterworth, at the Royal Court Theatre

london 2017 best theatre ferryman sam mendes royal courtThese are all hot tickets, but without doubt the number 1 top seller of 2017 so far is the Royal Court Theatre's production of The Ferryman.

Set in a Derry farmhouse in 1981, the Carney family prepares for a traditional night of feasting and celebration, until preparations are interrupted by the arrival of a mysterious visitor.

So why all the hype? It's simple: Sam Mendes. The superstar Academy Award winning filmmaker is returning to his spiritual home of the London stage, and that's a good reason to get excited. But there's more to appreciate here than just the director. The script comes courtesy of Jez Butterworth, another alumnus of that great Jerusalem production.

Beyond this little is currently known, and a cast has yet to be announced. Previews start in April. Tickets are probably long gone, but many are expecting an extension or even a move to the West End given the show's high demand.

3. "The Kid Stays in the Picture" by Simon McBurney at the Royal Court Theatre

best theatre 2017 london the kid stays in the picture simon mcburney royal court
Back to the Royal Court, no mean feat considering the inconsistency of their quality of production in recent years. But here we are for the second time on this list, and with quite a tantalising prospect.

The Kid Stays in the Picture is an adaptation of the autobiography of legendary film producer Robert Evans, and is brought to the stage by writer/director/theatre Complicite legend Simon McBurney.

That alone is enough to make one break out their wallet, but a starring role for the always watchable Danny Huston seals the deal. Who doesn't love a good play about the film industry? And with a team this good behind it, one has to have confidence that they'll do the genre justice.

This one lands in the Spring, March to early April. Busy time of year, but snap it up if you can.

2. "Ink" by James Graham, at the Almeida

london best theatre 2017 ink almeida this house rupert murdochA close contender for our top spot, Ink is the latest play from the wonderful writer James Graham, who you might know as the scribe behind This House.

Ink sticks with the political theme, focusing on the story of a young Rupert Murdoch and the events which transpire as he sets out to create what would go on to be the nation's most influential newspaper. Rupert Goold directs. A cast has yet to be announced.

Topical political theatre is tricky to get right, but Graham has exceptional pedigree. This House was an excellent production, whip smart, funny, and strong in its message. If he can bring the same quality to his latest work then this will surely be one of the theatre highlights of the year.

1. "Network" by Lee Hall and Paddy Chayefsky at the National Theatre

london best theatre 2017 network bryan cranston national
And indeed Ink was my top pick for 2017, at least until last week, when Network was announced. See, sometimes being behind schedule on a blog post can have unintended benefits!

Network is, of course, the theatrical adaptation of the classic multi-Academy award winning movie, commonly regarded as one of the great political and mass media satires of all time. With everything going on the world, the timing could not be more perfect.

This is one of those projects that just oozes quality from every point. One of the best production teams in the business from the National Theatre, the highly pedigreed Ivo Van Hove directing, and to top it all off, the great Bryan Cranston in the iconic starring role made famous by the late Peter Finch.

This sounds pretty fantastic, one of the most exciting projects in years. It doesn't start until later on in 2017, beginning in November, and so tickets aren't even on sale yet. You'll want to see this, so keep an eye on those on-sale dates.

So there you have it folks: 2017 in theatre. Tune in next week for our final instalment of the Hot List, covering the essential new music coming up in 2017!

Monday, 30 January 2017

Like most of you, I spend a good portion of this weekend watching the news in utter disbelief as the apparent leader of the free world dismantled 200 years of American tradition as compassionate humanitarians and ideologues of liberty, then in horror as he nonchalantly shrugged aside the authority of the judiciary system that is supposed to keep him in check, all while his Republican party colleagues and supporters smiled and clapped as if nothing at all out of the ordinary had happened.

trump republican racist muslim ban 5 year old iranian child reunited with mother heartbreaking sickening

I could give you the same speech that you’ve heard from every pundit and foreign leader on TV: that this is discriminatory, that it flies in the face of everything that America, and indeed western democracy stands for, that it’s callous and accomplishes nothing. But this is all obvious, and more to the point it has already been said throughout the election when Trump warned us that he was going to do this exact thing. But there’s a difference between opposing something because it goes against your principles or your ideology, and seeing it actually in practice. For me the turning point came late Sunday night.

I was watching the CNN coverage of the situation at America’s airports, JFK, Dallas, Logan. They were showing video footage of the various detainees from Trump’s “undesirable” countries being released from custody after hours of being held and questioned. At first my feeling was that the camera crew should leave them alone, after a long stressful ordeal I’m sure a camera in their face is the last thing they want. But once I saw these people I realized how important it is to see the faces of the people this affects, to see the human impact of this nightmare.

Then I saw something that broke me. A video of a young child being carried out of the airport by his mother. Young, five years old at most maybe younger. Not crying or anything, just staring blankly, shocked and despondent after hours of being held by armed men while his parents were taken away and kept separately, helpless to do anything. This kid had just been heading home. His mother was singing “happy birthday” as she carried him out. Is this what Trump meant when he said he wanted to make America great again?

And then I went on the social network Reddit to look at the discussion threads to see what people were saying about all this. I found comments like “Ha look at all these salty liberals shedding salty tears!” and “It’s just losers whining about losing. GET OVER IT.” (Actual quotes).

Imagine the juxtaposition; this young infant, innocent, detained for several hours for no reason aside from having parents born in a Muslim nation, traumatized and terrified, he and his parents treated like terrorists and criminals despite having committed no crime. On this young child’s birthday.  Then the vile excuses for human excrement laughing their heads off at this video baying “haha take that, liberals!”

I mean fuck. 

So sure, Republicans you go ahead and implement your insane white supremacist policies, and Democrats you keep fighting to restore American ideals. We’re used to that. But what kind of irredeemable sociopath takes such delight in the suffering of innocents, and innocent children no less? What unfathomable waste of oxygen is so hopelessly and remorselessly detached from human empathy that they gloat and gleefully cheer this five year old’s terror as if they had just won some game of football?

It is time to acknowledge the type of people that we are up against here. That a certain segment of this country have simply accepted the dehumanization of others. This is not simply politics anymore, this is hyper-partisanship taken to a frightening and dangerous extreme. It is no longer acceptable to simply laugh off comparisons to the humanitarian crises of the past.

It is also time to acknowledge the people who have brought us to this moment, enabled and encouraged the hatred. It is no longer acceptable for the Republican Party leadership, for the Speaker of the People’s House, and each of our duly elected representatives, to simply stand by and let this happen for the sake of party politics. 

This is not normal. There must be consequences. It is the duty of every sane and compassionate human being, American or otherwise, to remember what is happening, to remember the baying thugs who supported this administration, to remember the politicians who let it happen out of cynical self-interest.

This Muslim ban was announced (incredibly) on holocaust memorial day, a day on which we tell each other that we must never forget. This ban will be thrown out in the courts, Trump’s vile regime will come to an end, and when all this insanity is consigned to the ash-heap of history we must ensure that we never forget those who were responsible. It is the duty of all good people to ensure that everyone who has supported this administration and its actions carries the shame of it with them. History is watching America, history is watching Theresa May, history is watching Republican Party. None of you will be remembered kindly.

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