Monday, 27 March 2017
Developed by Nintendo
Published by Nintendo
Platform Switch, Wii U
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
We'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 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
French 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
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)
Another 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
Continuing 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 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)
Another 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
The 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
London'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 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
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 19-2000, Feel 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
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
Everyone knows The Killers. Their hits include such classics as Mr. Brightside, All 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
But 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 Up, Rebellion, 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.
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
We 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
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
Another 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
The 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
A 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
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
These 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
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
A 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
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
Sunday, 22 January 2017
Welcome back. We're taking a quick break today from our roll out of the 2017 Hot List in order to mark a crucial event, the transfer of power between Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Much has already been said of our newly appointed 45th President, but today we'd like to take a moment to look back and celebrate the legacy of his predecessor. Barack Obama leaves office today, but he leaves a legacy of historic accomplishment that will ensure his iconic status in the history of this nation.
It's a sad reminder of the political disinterest of the American people, and perhaps a reflection of the huge expectations that had been held of Barack Obama, that it became almost fashionable to ask mockingly "so what has he actually accomplished?" during eight years in office. But of course it's a ridiculous notion, when the things he has accomplished are so numerous and prominent, and so readily apparent for all to see.
How does one even rate an outgoing President? Well first there's the obvious metrics: Barack Obama leaves office with an approval rating of over 60%, one of the highest of any outgoing President at any point in our history. Going further, his approval rating has remained above or around 50% for much of his presidency, and rarely dipped below the high-mid 40s. The level and consistency of approval that Barack Obama has enjoyed throughout his presidency is unusual by historic standards, and there is little doubt that he leaves office having been one of the most popular leaders this country has seen in decades.
This is a view that has been shared not just by the general public, but by the experts. Presidential historians have so far been very favourable in their view of Obama's tenure, unusually so for a sitting President. The 2011 USPC ranking indicated that Obama would rank as the 8th greatest President of all time, while other rankings have consistently held him in the top 15 or so, holding him alongside the likes of Reagan, Clinton, JFK, LBJ, and John Adams.
So Obama is very popular, both among the general public as well as the professionals who have built a career on making such evaluations. But what has he actually done? Well lets jump straight in with the obvious accomplishments.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, commonly referred to as "The Stimulus" is something that doesn't get anywhere near enough attention when people discuss Obama's legacy, even though it is arguably the most significant single thing that he did as President.
Let's not sugar-coat it. The American economy was in free fall before Obama took office. The month before his inauguration, the economy shed 800,000 jobs, totalling around 8,000,000 jobs lost in one year under President Bush. In March 2009 there was a very sudden turnaround, and almost immediately the job losses were stemmed, and in less than a year we were back to positive job growth, which has now continued uninterrupted for an unprecedented six years. The unemployment rate has gone from 10% to under 5%. The above graph makes it pretty indisputable though, the turning point was March 2009. So what happened at that exact moment? The passage of the Stimulus package.
The numbers are pretty hard to deny, the Stimulus turned the economy around. Most economists are unanimous that without its passage, the country would have plunged into a second great depression. Take a moment to appreciate what that really means: massive economic devastation, the associated loss of both livelihood and life. This single act of saving the US economy would ordinarily have been more than enough to ensure Obama's place in the history books, but really it's only the tip of the iceberg. The Stimulus was really far more significant than just that.
Not many people seem to appreciate this, but the Stimulus was the biggest middle class tax cut in history, the biggest investment in infrastructure in history, the biggest investment in green energy in history, and the biggest investment in education in history. This was not just a patch to stop the boat from sinking, it patched the boat and on top of it built the foundation for a 21st Century America. It is Obama's magnum opus, and set the template for a new progressive vision for America, one that no amount of regression from his successors will be able to undo in its entirety.
But of course, this is the signature piece of Obama's domestic agenda, the one that comes to mind for most people when thinking about Obama's legacy. There's good reason for this: the American healthcare system was in crisis before Obama. An uneasy balance between a for-profit industry and a public service. America had appallingly poor healthcare coverage for its citizens, high costs that far exceeded any other developed nation, and a financial burden on the country that played a significant role in the nation's spiralling deficits.
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act accomplished many things. It expanded healthcare coverage to 30,000,000 Americans, ensuring near universal coverage. It created insurance exchanges, online marketplaces designed to promote healthy competition among insurers and provide greater options to consumers. It overhauled healthcare regulations to allow children to stay on their parents' insurance plans until age 26, and banned insurers from refusing coverage to individuals as a result of poorly defined "pre-existing conditions". It additionally provided a massive investment for medical research, technology, and new data infrastructure. In short, it made people healthier, controlled costs, and brought American healthcare, at last, into the 21st Century.
The results are clear: a lot more Americans have access to healthcare. More than that, the exploding national cost of healthcare has in fact been controlled. A lot of disingenuous hysteria has been made of the fact that insurance premiums increased by 25% between 2010 and 2015, completely ignoring the fact that they increased by 70% between 2000 and 2005, and then only increased by 3% in 2015-2016. These are incredible results, and show that the law has quite clearly succeeded in stabilising the nation's healthcare crisis.
It is a great shame on America that such an obviously beneficial and common sense law could provoke such controversy as a result of cynical political scheming. The joke of it is that every single one of this law's provisions are extremely popular among the American people, and yet as soon as you call it "Obamacare" it becomes less popular. This is the power of marketing, and a damning indictment of how gullible and susceptible to propaganda the American people are.
Combatting Climate Change
Arguably the most important contribution of Obama's presidency is that made to the fight against climate change, probably the most significant threat to mankind's future. In this regard, Obama will certainly go down as one of America's greenest Presidents.
As mentioned earlier, the Stimulus bill included the largest ever investment in green energy. $50 billion for research and implementation of renewable forms of energy, making federal buildings more energy efficient, improving the electricity grid, and subsidies for electric vehicles. In addition, Obama will be remembered for the massive reform in fuel efficiency standards implemented under his administration.
But probably the most significant accomplishment in combatting climate change these past eight years has been the finalisation of the Paris Climate Agreement, the largest and most ambitious agreement for the control of carbon emissions in history. The signing of this accord has been described as an "historic turning point" in the fight against climate change, and would be a worthy signature achievement of any presidency.
An under-appreciated aspect of Obama's domestic policy have been the massive strides that have been taken in ensuring marriage equality during his presidency regardless of sexual orientation.
From his administration's legal challenge against the discriminatory DOMA (now repealed), to his repeal of the antiquated Don't Ask Don't Tell law, to becoming the first sitting President to come out in full blooded support for for marriage equality, Obama has been a champion for LGBT rights. It is no surprise that following his clarion call the states finally began to pass their own legislation to, at long last, confirm by law the right of all people to enjoy the same rights to marriage.
For a nation that prides itself on holding the freedom and equality of all people above all else, it was a national shame that this did not include the LGBT community until this moment. The acceptance of the LGBT community in the world's most prominent democracy is a huge step closer towards realising this idealistic vision.
Other Domestic Policy
Any of these accomplishments would be a proud landmark for other Presidents, but there's so much more that could additionally be included.
There's the implementation of Net Neutrality, something that effects all of us and ensures the equal and uncensored availability of information. There's the executive orders taken in order to reform and stabilise the immigration system. There's the budget deficit which has been decreased by about a trillion dollars per year during Obama's time in office. There's the Wall Street reform of the Dodd-Frank bill, which has largely kept the financial industry under control and introduced the Bureau of Consumer Protection. There's the bailout of General Motors, a move which is generally credited with saving the American automobile industry, and which was repaid in full, with interest. All of these are huge and crucial achievements.
And of course one has to mention Obama's reshaping of the judiciary, with two Supreme Court Justices appointed by his administration. Both are extremely qualified academics, and quite notably both are ethnic minority women. This may seem a trivial point, but for a court that is supposed to represent the interests of a diverse nation, it was pretty shameful that it was almost entirely old white men. Obama has left us with a Supreme Court that better represents the nation over which it presides.
For sure, there are areas where Obama has not been able to match his ambitions; the failed effort to pass cap-and-trade environmental policies, the inability to pass the DREAM Act which would have given young illegals born in this country a pathway to citizenship, and the lack of more comprehensive reforms in immigration and education. But without a doubt, the things that he has accomplished are still more than enough to make him one of the most effective and productive Presidents in modern history.
Aside from his domestic policy, Obama is a President whose foreign policy has left an indelible mark on shaping the world around us during a particular turbulent point in history.
Again, there's the obvious accomplishments. The ending of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, two wars he inherited. The largest ever nuclear arms reduction treaty, the START treaty. Finally catching Osama Bin Laden.
But the most impressive part of Obama's foreign policy has been his bridge-building and his commitment to peaceful diplomacy. The landmark Iran nuclear deal that not only stopped Iran from getting nuclear weapons, but is now ensuring peaceful co-existence from a situation where his Republican rivals wanted a whole new war. The ending of the Cuba embargo and re-opening of diplomatic relations with that country. Under Obama, America has gone from being almost a pariah state to a valued and committed international partner, and the nation is more popular around the world than it has been in decades.
It's easy not to realise just how big a deal that is, for America to have friends and partners, not to mention international respect. It means America no longer has to perform illegal unilateral actions, or bear the brunt of the world's derision for that matter. It makes America stronger, and the whole world stronger. It means we can actually get things done.
That's not to say his foreign policy has been perfect by any means. Iraq is a mess, albeit one caused by his predecessor, and his inability to close Guantanamo Bay, while not within his power, is still a disappointment. But for any mistake or disappointment that one can raise about Obama's record in this area, one can only appreciate the openness and rationality behind every single decision. This is not a capricious President, or one who has taken actions behind a curtain of deceit and ulterior motive like his predecessor. Everything he has done has been a common sense move in the pursuit of his vision of a peaceful, more collaborative America.
So as we enter a troubling and turbulent new era, it's worth appreciating Obama's successful eight years in office. An eight years which reminds us that the country can govern rationally according to common sense and reason, rather than making everything a political game or special interest case, fact and science rather than religion and dogma. A President with a calm head who deftly handles any international crisis, and manages to stay scandal free at home. Obama entered office with high ambitions, and has largely managed to live up to his rhetoric.
America has some deep soul-searching to do, but whatever happens now, Obama's place as a towering figure in progressive history is assured.