From left: GTA V, Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, Overwatch. Composite: The Guardian Design Team

The 50 best video games of the 21st century

From left: GTA V, Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, Overwatch. Composite: The Guardian Design Team
From left: GTA V, Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, Overwatch. Composite: The Guardian Design Team


SingStar (2004)

Karaoke complexes might be relatively common now, but back in 2004 singing into a PlayStation was the closest most of us could get. SingStar’s discs of party classics formed the caterwauling soundtrack to millions of student gatherings, hen parties and five-pint Fridays all over Europe for more than a decade. Like Just Dance, it harnesses the infectious joy of pop music in a way that anyone can play.


Katamari Damacy (2004)

A gleeful absurdist masterpiece in which you start by rolling up pencils and apple peel and end up absorbing buildings, trees and, eventually, most of the planet in your big sticky ball, because why not? From the infectious soundtrack to the endearingly mad “plot”, it’s a work of pure joy.


Journey (2012)

Game as art … Journey.

Journey is a short and moving shared experience whose music, evocative colour palette and simple play come together as they only can in games, for a powerful emotional effect. It’s often picked as an ur-example of games as art – including by curators at the V&A, where it was front and centre at a recent exhibition.


Dead Space (2008)

Resident Evil meets Alien seems like such an obvious game pitch that it is incredible it wasn’t realised until 2008. In Dead Space, the player becomes lowly engineer Isaac Clarke, who finds himself investigating the “planet-cracking” ship Ishimura after radio contact with the vessel is lost. The craft is, of course, infested with alien creatures – the Necromorphs – who utilise the reanimated corpses of human victims in horrible ways. This is a dark, bloody and atmospheric survival-horror thrill ride.


Limbo (2010)

Extraordinary … Limbo. Photograph: TriplePoint

The central character here is a boy on the run from death, or perhaps already dead. One of several games that kicked off the indie-game renaissance of the 2010s, Limbo’s monochrome style and relatively short running time belie the extraordinary effort and fastidiousness that went into its creation, evident in everything from the sinister movements of a giant spider to the precise physics that power its puzzles.


Papers, Please (2013)

You are a border officer in a war-torn country where people are constantly trying to smuggle things past you: drugs, weapons, falsified IDs. But what about the mother and young child using a fake passport to rejoin the rest of their family? Or an undocumented refugee who you could reject as a possible terrorist, but who may in fact be a desperate civilian? Papers, Please is a powerful illustration of how we can become complicit in inhumane systems, and the ways games can invite us to explore complex ethical dilemmas.


Forza Horizon (2012)

Racing treat … Forza Horizon. Photograph: Microsoft

Combining an open-world structure with the energy of a music festival, Forza Horizon made arcade-style racing games fun again. Boasting a gigantic selection of cars and an inventive AI-assisted multiplayer component, the game was designed around simply letting the player have fun, no matter what they did or where they drove. Barn finds and destructible signs rewarded exploration, while a multitude of driving challenges provided structure and challenge. It’s an accessible, multifaceted racing treat.


Rocket League (2015)

“Football, but with remote control cars” is a likely pitch for Rocket League, but who expected it would become one of the most skilful and enduring multiplayer games released in decades? Rocket League is elegant and ageless: it will probably still be played in 20 years, in living rooms and in tournaments.


Burnout 3: Takedown (2004)

Guildford-based developer Criterion built its Burnout series of arcade driving games around two principles: speed and style. Taking place through traffic-packed city streets, the races rewarded players for risky manoeuvres, providing extra time to shoot past competitors. The third title in the series perfected the recipe, adding a “takedown” feature that encouraged players to smash rivals from the circuit. The detailed slow-motion physics engine heightened every smash into art.


Overwatch (2016)

After years of gritty, military shooters filled with macho spec-ops nobodies, Overwatch stormed on to the online gaming scene in 2016 like a giant kawaii robot bunny wielding a hot pink grenade launcher. This is a game about outlandish hero characters, joining forces in condensed team-based skirmishes. There is no levelling up, there are no weapons unlocks; it’s all about combining the different capabilities – from Mei’s endothermic blaster to Mercy’s healing staff – in effective ways. Loved for its brash, hyper-colourful aesthetic, Overwatch is the generation Z answer to Counter-Strike.


Gears of War 2 (2008)

So macho it’s machine guns have chainsaws … Gears of War 2. Photograph: Microsoft

Imagine a science-fiction war film directed by an early-career Kathryn Bigelow. Now imagine it’s interactive. This, in essence, is Gears of War, the definitive third-person space marine blast-’em-up – a game so macho, its machine guns have chainsaws. The second title in the series improved the cover system, added new weapons and bloody finishing moves and took the battle to the Locust alien invaders. It was thrilling, chaotic and beautiful and, with the brilliant co-op Horde gameplay mode, it invented new ways to play online.


Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 (2000)

Fondly remembered by anyone who had a PlayStation in their dorm room, this is still probably the best skateboarding game around, and there hasn’t been much competition since (perhaps due to the sport’s waning cultural presence since the 1990s). It is a time capsule of energetic college rock, endless point-chasing skate combos and irresistibly fun play.


Super Smash Bros Melee (2001)

The 2018 game Ultimate is, well, the ultimate expression of Smash Bros’ maximalist tendencies, with 74 characters and hundreds of references to Nintendo history. But Melee is the game that turned Nintendo’s anything-goes brawler from a living-room classic into a competitive fixture. It is still the most popular Smash game at tournaments, beautifully balanced and extraordinarily fun.


Silent Hill 2 (2001)

Konami’s answer to Resident Evil ditched zombie shocks for psychological horror. The second title in the series is the most disturbing. The game follows grief-stricken everyman James Sunderland as he arrives in the eponymous town searching for his supposedly dead wife. What follows is a descent into Sunderland’s psychosexual dysfunction, a viscera-splattered nightmare of undead nurses, animated shop window dummies and the giant fetishistic monster, Pyramid Head. Toying with Japanese horror and exploitation cinema, it cast a sombre spell over all who played.


Spelunky (2008)

Holds its mystique … Spelunky.

Derek Yu’s cave-diving platform game is fun to play on every single run, yet might take years to actually finish. Each time a different arrangement of cave creatures, unfortunate accidents and hostile geography conspires to bring your adventure to an abrupt close, and only the extremely skilled and extremely lucky will ever get right down into the depths. Even after years of play, Spelunky holds its mystique.


Assassin’s Creed 2 (2009)

The original Assassin’s Creed promised a rich historical adventure with an interesting sci-fi overlay – Assassin’s Creed 2 actually delivered it. Set in a luxuriously detailed approximation of Renaissance Italy, the game sees attractive assassin, Ezio Auditore da Firenze, taking on the dastardly templars while bumping into the likes of Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci. The freeform structure of the game, its mass of side quests and objectives, along with its range of abilities and items set the blueprints for modern open-world game design.


Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009)

Gothic monstrosity … Batman: Arkham Asylum

With a script by veteran Batman writer Paul Dini and all the key voice talent from the brilliant animated series, Arkham Asylum exudes authenticity from every pixel. This is the Batman of Frank Miller and Christopher Nolan – dark, twisted and violent – and it’s perfectly realised as a third-person action adventure. The combat is smooth and empowering, the silent takedowns are gratifying and the asylum setting is a superb gothic monstrosity. A comic-book lover’s dream.


Battlefield 1942 (2002)

With the first title in the Battlefield series, developer Digital Illusions brought large-scale cooperative combat and historical authenticity to the online shooter genre. Two teams of 32 players fought for dominance of vast environments, taking control points and commandeering vehicles. The multifaceted battles required players to assume complementary roles, some sniping from a distance, others running in as infantry. The excitement of a well-organised attack paying off felt like something truly new.


Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007)

The online deathmatch of the decade … Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Photograph: Activision

Bringing cinematic verve and explosive pace to the military shooter market, 2003’s Call of Duty provided gunfights of epic intensity. But it wasn’t until Modern Warfare that the series made a major impact, introducing an innovative multiplayer online mode that offered character progression alongside unlockable single-use mega-attacks. Add in its blistering animation and intense, claustrophobic maps, and it’s little wonder this game defined the online deathmatch experience for a decade.


God of War (2018)

God of War still sets the bar for its genre of expansive, visually spectacular interactive storytelling. Guiding a reformed violent god and his more sensitive son through settings from Norse mythology, you’ll see things that take the breath away: the corpse of an immense giant, frozen where he fell; parallel realms of vicious elves and shining, endless lakes; crumbling relics to absent gods. The pleasing thwock of Kratos’ axe as it hits the skulls of mythological monsters punctuates video games’ grandest odyssey.


Shadow of the Colossus (2005)

In this meditation on the selfish nature of grief, a young man sets out to topple mountainous, mournful and majestic giants in the hope of reviving a lost love. Each colossus is a puzzle; clambering up their mossy fur and plunging a sword into their hides, we soon learn that this hero’s quest isn’t what it seems. Subtle and profound, Shadow of the Colossus is disciplined in its storytelling and artistic direction, with ample space for reflection in its bleak and beautiful wilderness.


Deus Ex (2000)

Combining first-person shooter and action role-playing with real-world conspiracy theories and cyberpunk mythology, Ion Storm’s agenda-setting sci-fi adventure was a cultural event. The player character, JC Denton, is a “nano-augmented” government agent caught in a labyrinthine, globe-stomping plot about bioengineered viruses and alien technology. There are dozens of routes through the story, providing incredible freedom and inspiring a creative community of modders and fan-fiction writers.


Wii Sports (2006)

Accessible, inclusive and great fun … Wii Sports. Photograph: Nintendo

Few games have been played as widely as Wii Sports, from grannies bowling to toddlers enthusiastically playing tennis. Wii Sports was the world’s introduction to the Wii and a whole generation’s introduction to Nintendo’s philosophy of game design: accessible, inclusive and great fun.


Guitar Hero (2005)

What warm-blooded person has never dreamed of busting out an impeccable guitar solo on stage, revelling in the adoration of a baying crowd? Anyone born after about 1995, it turns out. But Guitar Hero was a product of its time and catered so brilliantly to the near-ubiquitous rock star fantasy, with its impeccable soundtrack of 1970s, 80s and 90s power rock, that tens of millions of people were wielding plastic guitars in living rooms within a couple of years.


Left 4 Dead (2008)

A co-op online zombie shooter with an AI system that orchestrated enemy attacks based on player actions, Left 4 Dead was ridiculously ahead of its time. Valve built excellent mechanics around its collaborative gameplay, encouraging highly tactical teamwork, and loaded its apocalyptic world with brilliant monsters, such as the grotesque tongue-lashing Smoker and the terrifyingly lachrymose witch. It would do amazing business in the multiplayer-obsessed, YouTuber-streaming world of modern gaming.


Ico (2001)

Experimental designer Fumito Ueda built this quiet, thoughtful adventure around the idea of two people holding hands, which is what the eponymous lead character and jailed princess Yorda must do if they are to escape their castle prison. Using all the conventions of a third-person action game, Ico is really about fear, solitude and the possibilities awakened by making physical contact with another human being. A minimalist masterpiece.


The Last of Us (2013)

Extraordinarily memorable … The Last of Us. Photograph: Sony

What looks at first like a standard entry in gaming’s extensive zombie-apocalypse canon soon turns out to be something more. Watching the relationship between grieving, grizzled Joel and guarded but optimistic teenager Ellie develop as they travel a ravaged America, creeping past unsettling “clickers” and coming face-to-face with desperate, violent fellow humans makes for an extraordinarily memorable game in an often boring genre.


The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (2000)

Possibly Nintendo’s most unsettling game, Majora’s Mask is also one of its most creative, trapping you in an apocalyptic time loop where the leering moon draws ever closer to the hapless Earth and its denizens cower in fear. Here, Link is a hero that nobody knows about, having gone forward in time to thwart an evil that was due to swallow up the world, before being returned to his childhood body and deserted by his only companions. Its time-loop structure and eerie atmosphere remain little-imitated.


Mario Kart 8 (2014)

We have yet to encounter a person who doesn’t enjoy Mario Kart, and Mario Kart 8 is as good as it gets: gleeful, freewheeling, with a marvellously jazzy score, colourful characters and courses that continually defy expectations. It is riotously enjoyable. One of the few modern games that is still best enjoyed shoulder-to-shoulder with friends, family or friendly strangers.


Mass Effect 2 (2010)

The defining chapter of BioWare’s space epic tackles everything: race, genocide, romance and heroism, all against a backdrop of impending galactic doom. It is brilliantly performed and exciting to play, with futuristic guns and biotic powers, and totally engrossing on a character level. Creating something of this scope that also feels personal to each player is no small feat.


Fortnite (2017)

 A global phenomenon … Fortnite

Launched as a forgettable co-op zombie shooter in 2017, developer Epic Games saw the success of Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds and decided to create its own battle royale mode, inviting 100 players to land on an island, then fight it out until only one survived. Colourful, silly and filled with daft outfits and infectious dance moves, Fortnite became a global phenomenon, attracting more than 250m players. It’s been featured in everything from Fox News to Avengers: Endgame and shows few signs of slowing down.


Grand Theft Auto IV (2008)

Niko Bellic comes to New York looking to escape the life of crime he had been leading in eastern Europe – but as in all Grand Theft Auto games, the American dream swiftly turns sour, and nihilistic violence turns out to be the only currency Bellic can deal in. GTA IV’s New York is stunning to inhabit, so detailed and full of life that it is hard to believe it’s powered by code.


Red Dead Redemption 2 (2018)

Only a developer with Rockstar’s extremely deep pockets and fanatical attention to detail could have made something like this, a re-creation of turn-of-the-20th-century US so lifelike that it is at times difficult to believe. Its story, of a dwindling gang of outlaws trying to outrun the march of time (and an ever-growing list of enemies) is impressive enough, but the world in which it takes place – vast, picturesque, full of people and strange encounters that most players will probably never even find – is a true monument to interactive achievement.


The Sims (2000)

One of the most successful and influential games ever made, The Sims is an outlet for megalomania, mad materialism or compassion – depending on the player. Controlling the lives of computer people, from their loves and careers to designing the homes they live in, is so compelling that it raises troubling questions about human nature.


Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (2009)

Breathtaking set pieces and exciting lore … Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. Photograph: Sony

Indiana Jones-style hero Nathan Drake came into his own in this spectacular cinematic adventure sequel. Crammed with breathtaking action set pieces, exotic locations and exciting lore, Among Thieves established the Uncharted series at the forefront of big-budget narrative game design. From the wrecked train opening to the epic finale amid the ruins of the mythical kingdom of Shambhala, the pace doesn’t let up. While baby boomers have nostalgic memories of Saturday-morning action cinema, millennials have Uncharted.


Resident Evil 4 (2005)

This wasn’t just an exciting horror story about a supercop rescuing the US president’s daughter from a Spanish cult. With Resident Evil 4, the creator of Capcom’s survival horror series, Shinji Mikami, completely changed the structure and style of the games, abandoning the slow-burn tension of the original titles in favour of raw action while (crucially) shifting from an expressionistic third-person camera to an over-the-shoulder perspective. The game established a whole new era of third-person shooters.


Super Mario Odyssey (2017)

After his galactic adventures in the Super Mario Galaxy games, Odyssey brought the cheerful plumber back down to Earth. Well, not Earth per se, but a bunch of different self-contained planets that provide ample room for Nintendo designers’ wild imaginations. From possessing a Chain Chomp to bounding around in low gravity, chasing rabbits or racing yetis, Odyssey is irresistibly exuberant.


World of Warcraft (2004)

Launched in 2004, Blizzard’s massively multiplayer role-playing adventure was not the first entry in this complex genre (Ultima Online and Everquest got there earlier), but it perfected the key elements, from combat mechanics to quest design to background lore, building an obsessive fanbase that has stayed loyal through multiple add-ons and updates. The game reached 100m player accounts in 2014, but the real stories have been much more personal – with its emphasis on close team-play, WoW has hosted real-life weddings and funerals, becoming as much a part of players’ lives as their own families.


Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (2015)

Bloated, idiosyncratic and troubling in places, The Phantom Pain is the perfect culmination of Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear vision as it has evolved over the last 30 years. Big Boss wakes up from a coma and finds himself carrying out covert missions during the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, rescuing civilians, kidnapping military leaders and managing his aquatic Mother Base as the typically nonsensical plot rolls on. It is unlike anything else out there … at least until Hideo Kojima’s forthcoming game Death Stranding turns up.


The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011)

Magic and might … The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

For decades, games have aspired to create a fantasy world that caters to your every whim – and Skyrim comes closest. Dragon-flavoured, largely unmemorable plot notwithstanding, it is an extraordinary playground where magic, might, words and weapons can all be wielded against the inhabitants and monsters that populate a snow-touched northern realm, and where subplots about assassins, vampires, lost relics and a thousand other things await the curious player.


Bloodborne (2015)

An extraordinary work of horror, Bloodborne conjures a dilapidated city whose inhabitants, rather than abandoning God, have become so obsessed with getting closer to their eldritch masters that they’ve become diseased. Hunting the creatures of Yharnam, an exhilarating and sometimes painfully challenging endeavour, the player uncovers an extraordinarily intricate, disturbing fiction of blood, beats and human folly. There are sights and fights in Bloodborne that no player could ever forget.


BioShock (2007)

Set in a doomed undersea utopia, BioShock is part shooter, part role-playing game, part morality fable, propelling players through a haunting and ambiguous quest to escape Rapture while learning its awful secrets. Famed for the hulking Big Daddy antagonists, the genetic modifications, the art deco architecture and designer Ken Levine’s exploration of objectivist philosophy, the game has been one of the most discussed and dissected of the century so far.


Portal 2 (2011)

Ingenious and inventive … Portal 2. Photograph: Electronic Arts

Building on the solid foundations of its predecessor, Valve’s 2011 sequel adds a more involved narrative to the ingenious physics puzzles, with tyrannical computer system GLaDOS providing an endlessly funny and inventive exploration of humanity and hubris. Here, the Aperture Lab is a giant, almost gothic, ludological construction, its weird research rooms and robotic production lines crammed with light bridges and lasers. It is the combination of Red Dwarf, 2001 and Crystal Maze no one knew they were waiting for.


Halo: Combat Evolved (2001)

One of the first shooters where the aliens fought back. Playing Halo today, especially on the Legendary difficulty setting, it is amazing how quickly those chattering, cackling Covenant can flush you out. Halo has spawned a beloved universe of space-opera shooters, but it’s the first game – released at a time when the idea of a first-person shooter on a console was laughable – that made the biggest impact.


Grand Theft Auto V (2013)

Split personality … GTA V.

In this, the best-selling entertainment product of all time, Rockstar painstakingly created a bizarre pastiche of southern California, seen through the eyes of three decidedly unheroic protagonists: a retired gangster whose family hates him, a young man from the inner city trying to escape a seemingly pre-destined life of crime, and a violent trailer-dwelling psychopath. Cleverly, these three characters also handily partition GTA’s split personality: biting satire of modern US, filmic storytelling, and directionless violent mayhem.


The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2015)

Many games offer the superficial choice between good and evil, but the Witcher asks what happens when you’re adrift on waves of history and politics that are beyond your control. Geralt of Rivia isn’t a hero; he’s just an outcast, present at a tumultuous time in his realm’s history. Turns out that far more interesting stories can be found when you’re not preoccupied with a facile objective to save the world.


Half-Life 2 (2004)

 You live every moment … Half-Life 2. Photograph: EA

Video games aren’t short of alien invasion stories but Half-Life 2 is so good it makes the whole concept seem fresh and frightening. Taking place several years after the original, Gordon Freeman wakes to find an Earth utterly subjugated by the Combine forces – but a resistance movement is forming. The shrewd environmental puzzles and the famed gravity gun exploit the intricate physics engine to make this hellish world feel authentic. You truly hate the enemies, you live every moment. One of the greatest narrative video games ever made.


Dark Souls (2011)

You are dead, which comes with few advantages, but at least you can’t die again – not for good, anyway. Plunging you into a never-ending cycle of death and rebirth in a world where almost nothing still breathes, Dark Souls sets you off with nothing and lets its horror-tinged dark fantasy unfold as you flail and struggle to survive. Invigoratingly uncompromising and influential, it was the breakthrough game of FromSoftware and visionary director Hidetaka Miyazaki. Despite two more Dark Souls games and a raft of imitators, there is still nothing like it.


Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017)

Doing for the open-world game what Half-Life 2 did for the first-person shooter, Breath of the Wild tears up and throws away all the things that make exploration a chore – checklists, objective markers, forests of icons – to make way for true adventure. Breath of the Wild counts on your curiosity, intelligence, self-determination and ingenuity, giving you a thousand ways to apply them. Its thrillingly open wilderness makes other games feel like a quaint miniature train ride by comparison.


Minecraft (2009)

 A dozen experiences in one … Minecraft

Swedish coder Markus “Notch” Persson didn’t invent the concept of the block-based building game – Minecraft arrived just after Zach Barth’s experimental title Infiniminer. However, the founder of Stockholm studio Mojang took the idea of a Lego-like construction game based in a procedurally generated environment and perfected it. Originally launched as a work in progress in the summer of 2009, word about this unusual blocky simulation quickly spread on PC gaming forums and a community of enthusiastic modders started to gather around the project, downloading Persson’s version but adding their own rules and graphics. From the very beginning Minecraft was a shared endeavour – a labour of love, shared between creator and fans.

By the time of its full release in November 2011, Minecraft already had 10 million registered players. Later came conversions from PC to Xbox, PlayStation and smartphones, bringing in new audiences. The game was split into two experiences: the Survival mode where players had to battle zombies and giant spiders while mining for resources, and the Creative mode where they were given an unlimited inventory of wooden, glass and stone blocks to concentrate on crafting their own ambitious projects.

This has always been the vital element of Minecraft’s success and importance: it is a dozen experiences in one. It’s about making models, but also exploration, combat and resource management. Participants can build alone or join friends, introducing a new form of online creative collaboration. Using the game’s red stone component, which allows objects in the world to be electrically powered, fans began to build complex machines including working calculators. Others constructed scale models of the USS Enterprise, Hogwarts and King’s Landing. Art galleries and museums began to take notice. The Tate Modern commissioned expert modellers to create versions of modernist artworks in the Minecraft world; the British Museum was officially recreated in the game, as was Great Ormond Street Hospital.

Over the past decade, Minecraft has become a hobby and a social space. Servers have been set up for people on the autistic spectrum, providing a vital means of meeting with and communicating with others. Hundreds of schools throughout the world use the Education edition of Minecraft to teach physics, geology, drama, art, electronics and sustainable farming. The cultural and educational reach of the game is enormous. Minecraft was vital in the rise of the celebrity gaming YouTuber – with names like StampyCat and DanTDM familiar to millions.

With more than 175m copies now sold on an array of devices from smartphones to virtual-reality headsets, Minecraft has transcended the idea of what games are and what they can achieve. When you load the game, what you do is up to you – it gives you the experience you want, and that is different for everyone. There has never been an interactive entertainment experience like it. Game makers truly believe that video games have the power – just like literature, cinema and art – to change lives. This one unquestionably, demonstrably has. Time and time again.

Gears Tactics review – brains meet brawn in strategic spin-off

Rating: 4 out of 5.

PC (version tested), Xbox One; Microsoft Game Studios
It wouldn’t be Gears of War without gore, and combining strategy with viscera dispersal aplenty, this cerebral twist on an old favourite remains true to form

Slabs of virtual muscle with added pizzazz … Gears Tactics. Photograph: Microsoft

Bloody sci-fi shooter series Gears of War and the term “tactics” may not seem like natural bedfellows, given that these games are best known for their macho space soldiers and chainsaw machine guns. Yet strategy has always played a far bigger role in the games than may be initially apparent. After all, the key innovation of the titles was to add cover-and-fire manoeuvres into a fast-paced action game. Gears Tactics simply inverts the emphasis. Whereas previously the tactical layer existed to complement the action, here all that gore greases the cogs of a smart and fiercely entertaining strategy machine.

Set before the original Gears of War, Gears Tactics sees players control squads of soldiers led by two veterans of its seemingly eternal conflict: walking chin Gabe Diaz and weaponised moustache Sid Redburn. Together, they seek to eliminate a troublesome general of the Locust Horde, a race of brawny subterranean monsters who have taken over Earth.

Gears of War’s storytelling has always held ambitions somewhat beyond its ham-fisted reach, but if you’ve previously enjoyed watching its slabs of virtual muscle do emotions, know that Tactics tells its story with pizzazz if not subtlety, featuring lovingly crafted cinematics, top-tier voice acting and some fairly major reveals for what is essentially a spin-off.

 Strategy that feels like action … Gears Tactics. Photograph: Microsoft

Indeed, Gears Tactics has lost little of the series’s perennially high production values in the switch from shooter to strategy, boasting stunning visuals and slick animations alongside an incredibly intuitive interface. Also like earlier games, it is ferociously violent, with your soldiers frequently bursting and dismembering the Locust with bombs, bayonets and chainsaws.Advertisement

Gears Tactics is a strategy game designed to feel like an action game, and this philosophy goes beyond the sharp visuals and the viscera dispersion rate. Any given mission sees your squad pitted against a much larger number of Locust, with each side taking turns to move their units between cover and eliminate as many of the opposing force as possible. Your soldiers have a limited number of “action points” per turn. These can be used to move, shoot at an enemy or deploy special abilities such as “overwatch”, which lets you set up ambushes, firing at any enemy who wanders into its cone-shaped kill-zone.

This foundation is familiar among tactics games, but Gears adds to it abilities such as “executions”, where theatrically killing an incapacitated enemy gives teammates an additional action point. Moreover, certain soldier-types sport powers such as “bayonet charge”, letting them rush across the battlefield to quickly take an enemy out of commission. Many abilities can be upgraded to provide free actions or even add actions to your pool. Some of the combinations you can pull off are truly exhilarating. In the late game, one of my snipers could pop the heads of a half-dozen Locust in a single turn.

Gears Tactics constantly encourages players to push forward into battle, to be aggressive and daring and think on their feet. Yet, while boldness is often rewarded, recklessness will be punished severely. Even the lowliest Locust grunt can blast half a health bar off one of your soldiers, while together they create overlapping overwatch traps that need to be surgically dismantled to prevent your squad from being wiped out.

The way the game injects pace and momentum into a traditionally slow-burn genre is its greatest success, so it isn’t surprising that it is weakest when the pace falters. Gears Tactics lacks the broader strategic layer of games such as XCOM, featuring instead a linear story campaign. This is the right call, but problems arise with the side missions embedded into this structure. Initially, they’re a welcome opportunity to flex your tactical muscles, whether you need to hold two separate control points against assault, or retreat from an encroaching artillery barrage as the Locust try to slow you down. In the latter acts, however, Gears Tactics forces you to complete two or even three side missions before moving on to the next story beat.

There is a logic to the idea – soldiers sent on one side-mission cannot be deployed in another, so you need to manage your squads carefully to ensure success. But it has the effect of slowing progress to a crawl when the story should be ramping up to the conclusion. There also aren’t enough mission types to prevent a sense of repetition creeping into those final hours. The latter half of the third act is a slog when it should be a sprint.

Nonetheless, Gears Tactics is a triumphant twist on an old favourite, capturing the fury and spectacle of its shooter-based brethren while also offering a more cerebral experience. Gears has always exhibited shades of American football, from the hypermasculine tone to its disconcertingly swole characters. Now it has the conspicuous brains to match its conspicuous braun.

Move on up! The most joyful dance clips to raise the spirits

How will live performance adapt? … Ellen Yilma and Alejandra Gissler in Voices and Light Footsteps, from the Richard Alston company’s final performance, March 2020. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Being over 70, I have obediently stayed in my flat for six weeks now. It has been an extraordinary time as I had just gone through the biggest change in my working life. My dance company of 25 years gave its last performances at Sadler’s Wells in March and almost immediately that wonderful theatre was closed by Covid-19 restrictions. I found myself confined to my home and woke up a couple of days later absolutely unclear as to whether I was avoiding the coronavirus or adjusting to a rather sudden retirement.

I have been blessed with help from marvellous friends who were formerly dancers. One of them brings food shopping each week and leaves it at my door and in the warmer weather of the last few weeks we have stood socially distanced from each other on my doorstep having a good gossip. It helps to fill the long day before I settle down in the evenings with a damn good bottle of wine and watch dance online.

What do I watch? Such “virtual” achievements as the young dancers of Ballet Chicago doing the slow opening of Balanchine’s Serenade in isolation – on their decked patios, on a windswept beach, or in their living spaces; it’s something I found truly touching. I soak myself in the work of the most inspiring choreographers and companies, George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, the gifted young Justin Peck, Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown, the Royal Danes dancing Bournonville and, of course, the sublime Fred Astaire.

One oddity that I revisit again and again is a YouTube clip called “Il piu piccolo e bravo ballerino di pizzica” – a young boy in Puglia launching himself joyously into elaborate and springing steps, his sneakered feet weaving in and out, and his small body hardly seeming to touch the ground. All these small jewels of dance raise my spirits high (or is it the wine?).

Meanwhile, in lockdown, I have been collaborating with another of my dancers (virtually of course) on preparing and designing my own new website. I can’t tell you how much I have obsessively enjoyed the detailed conversations and choices that have gone into making it what I wanted it to be. I have chosen 22 dances to include, each with a video extract and a few words to explain what I’d set out to do in each piece.

It has been an inspiring and soul-cleansing exercise. I didn’t really comprehend how many of my dances have been well and imaginatively recorded on camera, and I’ve been thrilled. So now I’m beginning to understand how exhilarating can be the marriage of a moving camera and dancers flying by. It’s made me seriously think about whether the speed and detail which I so love in dance does indeed come across more clearly with good camerawork and sensitive use of totally engaging close-ups – and more engagingly perhaps than on stage. What a thought! But it could well be true.

Pierre Tappon and Sonja Peedo in Light Flooding Into Darkened Rooms by Richard Alston at the Place, London, in 2010. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian

Juxtaposing these dance excerpts has been exciting and has enabled me to re-evaluate what I’ve been doing. In all the uncertainty of the prevailing threat to everything we have come to rely on as normal, how will live performance adapt to survive? And if, perish the thought, I should never have the opportunity to choreograph again, then how thankful I am that these dances exist on screen – and the videos reassure me that yes, I did something well.

• Explore Richard Alston’s archive on his website

Coronavirus and culture – a list of major events canceled


  • Disney postpones indefinitely release of MulanThe New Mutants and Antlers.
  • Steve Martin and Martin Short cancel shows in Dublin and London (13-15 March).
  • Record Store Day postponed until June.
  • BAM in New York cancels all live events and announces it will run its cinemas at 50% capacity.
  • BPM festival (Miami, 22 March) postponed, new dates TBA.
  • Under the Southern Stars Australia tour (3-19 April) cancelled.
  • Rage Against the Machine postpone North American tour (26 March to 20 May), new dates TBA.
  • Paris Opera cancels all performances of Manon until 3 April, George Balanchine until 10 April, the concert of MonteverdiRossi and Handel on 18 March, Don Giovanni from 21 March to 24 April.
  • Lifeboat (Catherine Wheels production) at East Linton Community Hall, Scotland, on 14 March cancelled.
  • London Irish Centre announces cancellation of St Patricks Day events.
  • Rathbones Folio prize ceremony cancelled, winner will be announced 23 March.
  • International Booker prize shortlist ceremony cancelled (was 2 April).
  • Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at Charing Cross Theatre postponed.


The release of Bond film No Time To Die was postponed from early April to late November. Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

13 March: Belfast film festival (1-9 April) postponed until autumn.
13 March: Release of Rocks (10 April) postponed
13 March: Disney postpones indefinitely release of Mulan, The New Mutantsand Antlers.
12 March: Release of A Quiet Place 2 (20 March) cancelled indefinitelyFast 9postponed from May 2020 to April 2021.
12 March: Tribeca film festival (15-26 April) postponed.
12 March: Disney announces closure of Disneyland Paris and Disneyworld in US; Universal Studios theme park also announces closure.
12 March: WonderCon (10-12 April) cancelled.
12 March: The Lovebirds (3 April) cancelled. US release of Blue Story (20 March) cancelled.
12 March: Release of Sooryavanshi (27 March) postponed indefinitely.
11 March: Large-scale cinema closures in India, Poland, Lebanon and Kuwait
11 March: Miami film festival (6-15 March) cancelled mid-run.
11 March: All Italian cinemas closed.
10 March: UK release of A Secret Garden postponed from 3 April to 13 August.
10 March: Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway postponed from early April until 7 August.
10 March: Release of Polish slasher film W lesie dzis nie zasnie niktpostponed.
10 March: David Di Donatello Awards – Italy’s Oscars – postponed from 3April to 8 May
10 March: Prague international film festival (19-27 March) postponed until later in the year.
9 March: Beverly Hills film festival (1-5 April) postponed until further notice.
9 March: AFI’s lifetime achievement ceremony to honour Julie Andrewspostponed from April until the summer.
9 March: Beijing international film festival (April) postposed indefinitely.
8 March: All Italian cinemas closed.
8 March: Restrictions imposed on French cinemas to run at 50% capacity; some cinemas closed. 
6 March: SXSW festival (13-22 March) cancelled.
6 March: International Indian Film Academy Awards – Bollywood’s Oscars – postponed from 27 March.
4 March: Bond film No Time to Die postponed from early April to late November.
3 March: Red Sea international film festival (due to start 12 March) cancelled.
1 March: Most South Korean cinemas closed.
28 February: Disneyland Tokyo closed.
22 February: Iran closes most cinemas.
13 February: Hong Kong film festival (24 March to 6 April) cancelled.
31 January: Chinese film Enter the Fat Dragon cancels all cinema plans and debuts online.
24 January: China closes most of its 70,000 screens.
23 January: Chinese New Year releases of seven major titles cancelled.
22 January: Cinema release of Chinese blockbuster Lost in Russia cancelled; film is fast-tracked to streaming services.

Billie Eilish has postponed her North American tour. Photograph: Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

13 March: Japanese Breakfast postpones March tour, new dates 16-21 June.
13 March: Shopping North American tour (13 March to 10 April) postponed, new dates TBA.
13 March: Davido suspends ‘A Good Time’ tour (April 11 in North America.)
13 March: Celine Dion postpones North American tour (24 March to 27 April), new dates TBA.
13 March: J Cole postpones Dreamville festival (4 April) to 29 August.
13 March: Radio 1’s Big Weekend (22-24 May) Dundee cancelled.
13 March: Jens Lekman cancels US tour (14 April to 21 May).
13 March: Record Store Day postponed until June.
13 March: BPM festival (Miami, 22 March) postponed, new dates TBA.
13 March: Under the Southern Stars Australia tour (3-19 April) cancelled.
13 March: Rage Against the Machine postpone North American tour (26 March to 20 May), new dates TBA.
12 March: Snowbombing festival (Mayrhofen, Austria, 13-18 April) cancelled.
12 March: Pixies postpone remaining Australian tour dates (12-17 March), new dates TBA.
12 March: Avril Lavigne cancels world tour (13 March to 24 May).
12 March: Bikini Kill cancel US and Canada tour (13-23 March), new dates TBA.
12 March: Underworld postpone Norway and Denmark dates (13-15 March), new dates TBA.
12 March: Big Ears festival (Knoxville, Tennessee, 26-29 March) cancelled.
12 March: Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony (Cleveland, Ohio, 2 May) postponed, new date TBA.
12 March: Juno awards (Saskatoon, 15 March) cancelled.
12 March: LOVR Benefit ft Chris Martin (Los Angeles, 21 March) postponed, new date TBA.
12 March: Bob Weir postpones US tour (13-25 March), new dates from 7 October.
12 March: C2C festival (London, Dublin and Glasgow, 13-15 March) postponed, new dates TBA.
12 March: Lollapalooza Brazil (Sao Paolo, 3-5 April) postponed, new dates TBA.
12 March: Tool postpone 16 March concert in West Valley City, Utah; remaining tour dates proceeding.
12 March: Dan + Shay postpone US arena tour, new dates from 30 July.
12 March: The Who postpone UK tour (16 March to 8 April), new dates TBA.
12 March: Iggy Pop reschedules French tour, new dates from 10 September.
12 March: Capital One JamFest (Atlanta, 5 April) cancelled.
12 March: Billie Eilish postpones North American tour (13-28 March), new dates TBA.
12 March: Chelsea Wolfe postpones European tour (13 March to 1 April), new dates TBA.
12 March: My Chemical Romance postpone Australia and Japan tour (20-29 March), new dates TBA.
12 March: Mumford and Sons Teenage Cancer Trust show (23 March) postponed, new date TBA.
12 March: Days of Summer Cruise festival (Miami) postponed to 1-15 July 2021.
12 March: Cher postpones US tour, new dates from 8 September.
12 March: Mount Eerie postpones North American tour (12-19 April), new dates TBA.
12 March: Bonnie “Prince” Billy cancels US tour (12-15 March).
12 March: Willie Nelson cancels Luck Reunion festival (19 March).
12 March: Best Coast postpones North American tour (14 March to 2 April), new dates TBA.
12 March: Pussy Riot postpone North American tour (13 March to 19 May), new dates TBA.
12 March: Blood Orange postpone North American tour (12-20 March), new dates TBA.
12 March: Wilco postpone certain US tour dates (18 March to 5 April).
12 March: TNGHT postpone European tour (16-22 March) to July, new dates TBA.
12 March: Maluma postpones European tour (13 March to 4 April), new dates TBA.
12 March: Action Bronson cancels US tour (25 March to 21 May).
12 March: Kenny Chesney postpones US tour (18 April to 28 May), new dates TBA.
12 March: Chris Stapleton postpones US tour (12-21 March), new dates TBA.
12 March: Blake Shelton postpones tour (12-21 March), new dates TBA.
12 March: Jay Som postpones UK and European tour (17 March to 8 April), new dates TBA.
11 March: Pearl Jam postpone first leg of North American tour (18 March to 19 April), new dates TBA.
11 March: Berlin club Berghain cancels all self-produced events until 20 April.
11 March: They Might Be Giants postpone US tour, new dates starting 8 September.
11 March: Poppy postpones European tour (13-30 March), new dates TBA.
11 March: Treeford Music festival (Boise, Idaho) postponed until 23-27 September.
11 March: Stagecoach festival (Indio, CA) postponed to 23-25 October.
10 March: World Tour Bushfire Relief Concert (Melbourne, 13 March) cancelled.
10 March: Zac Brown Band postpone US tour (12 March to 25 April).
10 March: Coachella festival (Indio, California) postponed to 9-11 October and 16-18 October.
10 March: Bans Off My Body benefit with Courtney Love and Melissa Auf Der Maur (New York City, 14 March) postponed, new date TBA.
9 March: Madonna cancels Paris dates (10-11 March).
9 March: Carlos Santana cancels European tour (14 March to 5 April).
9 March: Pearl Jam postpone North American tour (19 March to 19 April), new dates TBA.
7 March: SXSW festival cancelled (Austin, 13-22 March).
6 March: Ultra festival (Miami, 20-22 March) cancelled.
5 March: Tomorrowland Winter festival (Alpe d’Huez, France, 14-21 March) cancelled.
28 February: BTS cancel South Korea tour (11-19 April); US dates (from 4 May) still proceeding.
28 February: Green Day postpone East Asian tour (14-28 March).
13 February: Stormzy postpones Asian leg of world tour.

The London Philharmonic Orchestra has cancelled its tour of Luxembourg, Germany and Austria. Photograph: Antonio Zazueta Olmos/The Guardian

13 March: Paris Opera cancels the concert of MonteverdiRossi and Handelon 18 March, Don Giovanni from 21 March to 24 April.
12 March: London Philharmonic Orchestra cancels tour of Luxembourg, Germany and Austria (13-19 March).
12 March: Salzburg Easter festival cancelled.
12 March: LA Philharmonic cancels all performances until end of March.
12 March: New York Philharmonic cancels all performances until end of March.
12 March: Washington Ballet reschedules Swan Lake to June 2020.
12 March: Philadelphia Orchestra cancels all events and rehearsals until 23 March.
12 March: LA Opera cancels Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux.
12 March: Seattle Opera cancels all events until end March.
12 March: Metropolitan Opera cancels all performances and rehearsals until end of March.
12 March: André Rieu and Johann Strauss orchestra cancels remainder of US tour.
11 March: Yuja Wang cancels European tour.
11 March: Bavarian State Opera cancels all performances until 19 April.
11 March: San José Opera cancels The Magic Flute.
11 March: Lang Lang cancels Freiburg concert; new date TBA.
10 March: San Diego Opera cancels March performances.
10 March: Paris Philharmonic cancels March performances.
10 March: Cleveland Orchestra cancels European and Abu Dhabi tour (16 March to 4 April).
6 March: Edinburgh International Harp festival (3-8 April) cancelled.
28 February: Venice Teatro la Fenice cancels all events until 5 April.
28 February: Lausanne Chamber Orchestra cancels March concerts.
27 February: National Symphony Orchestra cancels Japan tour.

 Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella has been postponed. Photograph: Nigel French/PA

13 March: Jenna Friedman at Soho theatre (17-28 March) cancelled. To be rescheduled.
13 March: Melbourne comedy festival cancelled.
13 March: Odeon theatre in Paris cancels performances until further notice.
13 March: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at Charing Cross Theatre. To be rescheduled.
13 March: Steve Martin and Martin Short cancel shows in Dublin and London (13-15 March).
13 March: Paris Opera cancels all performances of Manon until 3 April and George Balanchine until 10 April.
13 March: Lifeboat (Catherine Wheels production) at East Linton Community Hall, Scotland, on 14 March is cancelled.
12 March: Greek theatres closed until 28 March.
12 March: Larger theatres in Ireland including the Abbey and Gate in Dublinclosed until 29 March.
12 March: Broadway theatres closed until 12 April.
11 March: Berlin’s larger theatres, operas and concert halls including Schaubuhne and Volksbuhne closed until 19 April.
8 March: Italian theatres closed, including the Scala until 3 April.
6 March: Chester Storyhouse postpones Brewster’s Millions and Antigone. New dates not yet announced.
5 March: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella postponed from September 2020 to 9 October, now at Gillian Lynne theatre, London.

13 March: Rathbones Folio prize ceremony cancelled, winner will be announced 23 March.
13 March: International Booker prize shortlist ceremony cancelled (was 2 April).
12 March: Jenny Offill’s UK book tour for Weather, scheduled 12-19 March, cancelled.
11 March: John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Bostonclosed until further notice.
11 March: rescheduled Bologna Children’s Book Fair cancelled.
10 March: Windham-Campbell prize ceremony, scheduled for 19 March in London, cancelled.
10 March: Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, scheduled for April, postponed to October.
4 March: Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, scheduled for 15-21 April, cancelled.
4 March: London Book Fair, scheduled for 10-12 March, cancelled.
3 March: Leipzig’s book fair, scheduled for 12-15 March, cancelled.
1 March: Paris Book Fair, scheduled for 20-23 March, cancelled.
24 February: Bologna Children’s Book Fair, scheduled for 30 March to 2 April, postponed until May.

13 March: San Francisco shuts the Asian Art Museum, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) until the end of the month.
13 March: Sadie Coles makes London galleries appointment-only until further notice.
13 March: BOZAR Centre for Fine Arts, Brussels closes until 3April.
12 March: All major New York museums including the Whitneythe MetropolitanSculptureCenterNeue Museum, GuggenheimBrooklyn Museumthe Shed, the Frick and MoMA close to the general public until further notice. 
12 March: Gagosian closes all its galleries including London, New York, Los Angeles and Rome until further notice. Most private galleries also announce closure.
12 March: The Broad and J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles announces closure until further notice; LACMA stays open but cancels public events of more than 50 people.
12 March: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC closed until at least 4 April.
12 March: Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam closed until at least 31 March.
12 March: All cultural institutions (including theatres and nightclubs) closed in Berlin, Germany until at least 20 April.
12 March: Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin closes until at least 29 March.
11 March: In Madrid, Spain, government-run museums including the Pradoare closed indefinitely.
11 March: La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona limits visitors to 1,000 people.
10 March: Dark Mofo music and art festival in Tasmania, Australia, cancelled.
9 March: In Paris, the Louvre announces that only visitors with pre-booked tickets will be admitted. Musee d’Orsay caps visitors at 1,000.
9 March: The Photography Show, Birmingham moved from March 14–17 to September.
8 March: Museums and heritage sites closed throughout Italy.
4 March: Venice architecture biennale postponed, due to open 29 August.
28 February: Japan closes all museums until 17 March.
23 February: South Korea closes all museums until further notice.
26 February: Milan Furniture Fair postponed until June.
28 January: All museums in Hong Kong closed until further notice.
23 January: Museums closed throughout China.

Juliet wins six prizes at WhatsOnStage awards

Pop-meets-Shakespeare show split critics but wins big at awards voted on by public.

Miriam-Teak Lee, centre, the show’s Juliet, won best actress in a musical. Photograph: Ken McKay/ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

A musical which one theatre critic hated, calling it “silly, misguided and idiotic”, and another loved as “fun, sharp and witty” has emerged as the big winner at the only major theatre awards voted on by the public.

The show & Juliet imagines Shakespeare being persuaded by his wife, Anne Hathaway, to change the ending of Romeo and Juliet.

Instead of the downer of death it becomes a cheery story of female empowerment as Juliet goes on a wild trip to Paris with her girlfriends, to the backdrop of pop songs by the Swedish super-producer Max Martin which include Britney Spears’ Oops! … I Did it Again and Kesha’s Blow.

It divided critics. In the Guardian, Michael Billington called it silly and idiotic. “I still fail to see the point of a show like this: if the audience want to hear just the songs, why not present them in concert form?” Gregory Robinson, in the Observer, praised it for packing “a lot of fun into its sharp, witty story of self-discovery”.


On Sunday, the show won six prizes at the 20th annual WhatsOnStage awards. Among them were the show’s Juliet, Miriam-Teak Lee, who won best actress in a musical.

The show won the most awards at the ceremony, which was held at the Prince of Wales theatre in London on Sunday night and broadcast, for the first time, on BBC Radio 2. But it missed out on the best new musical prize. That went to Come From Away, which tells the true story of planes from across the globe being grounded in a tiny Newfoundland community because of the September 11 terror attacks. It won five awards in total.

The Old Vic picked up three acting awards, with Claire Foy winning best actress in a play for Lungs, Andrew Scott winning best actor and Sophie Thompson winning best supporting actress, both for Present Laughter.


Dear Evan Hansen, which was last week praised by Prince William for the way it tackles mental health issues, won two awards: best actor in a musical for Sam Tutty and best supporting actor for Jack Loxton.

Jamie Lloyd won best director for Evita at Regent’s Park Open Air theatre and best play revival for Betrayal, the culmination of his wildly ambitious Harold Pinter season.

The best new play award went, for the first time, to a production not in London: Lolita Chakrabarti’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s Booker prize-winning book The Life of Pi, which was staged at the Sheffield Crucible. It will transfer to the West End this year.

The Equity award for services to theatre was presented to ERA 50:50, which campaigns for gender balance on stage and screen. Maureen Beattie, the president of Equity, presented the award to the actor Denise Gough.

The inaugural Radio 2 audience award for best musical, voted on by listeners, went to Six the Musical.


Sita McIntosh, the chief operating officer of WhatsOnStage, thanked audiences who had voted in their tens of thousands. “Their support and championing of shows is what keeps our industry alive.”

The Life of Pi win was a significant moment, she said. “It’s galvanising to see that a play that has never been staged in London has picked up the best new play award, showing how the WhatsOnStage awards really are decided by audiences across the nation.”

Art is struggling to depict pregnancy

From the Virgin Mary to Demi Moore, art history swells with iconic mums-to-be. But can a single image ever do justice to such a head-scrambling state of flux – especially one made by a man?

‘How brilliant to paint yourself changing’ … Chantal Joffe’s 2004 self-portrait Photograph: © Chantal Joffe Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London/ Venice

Pregnant. A single word has to capture so many states. There’s early pregnancy, with its peculiar secret knowledge of change. The nausea, the exhaustion, the understanding that multiplying cells are forming themselves into the shape of lentils, hazelnuts, plums; the fear (or hope) of miscarriage; the strange, triumphant certainty of the heartbeat, beamed into the consulting room – that first call from a creature who is telling you that in eight, seven, six months, it will be there to claim you, your child. And all the while, your body appears unchanged. Historically, many women didn’t even know they were pregnant at this stage.


Then, months later, there’s the weight, pushing down hard against your back, your ribs, your bladder. There are the kicks – charming flutters that become more insistent, reminding you that this will become a child with needs, a child whose shouts of “Mummy” will become impossible to ignore, rousing you to provide food, help or the finding of lost things. And all along, the changes are not month by month, not even week by week, but hour by hour. Why is it that at one moment a foot protruding outwards can bring a contented feeling of companionability but an hour later can feel more like an invading alien – stealing your iron, your nutrients, your warmth. No wonder that, as an adjective, we use “pregnant” to mean “full of meaning”.

Three-way complicity … Augustus John’s 1901 portrait of his wife Ida. Photograph: Bridgeman Images

So how do you represent so fluctile a state in art? Susan Hiller did it, with matter-of-fact clarity, by taking day-by-day photographs of her growing belly, in her 1977 work Ten MonthsMany artists have recorded single moments, but the best find some way to suggest movement and change. We can see an impressive selection of the British artists who have attempted it across the centuries in Portraying Pregnancyat the Foundling Museum in London. The exhibition, curated by Karen Hearn, takes us from the Medieval Books of Hours, with their depictions of the Virgin Mary’s pregnancy, to Annie Leibovitz’s iconic naked photographs of Demi Moore and Serena Williams in Vanity Fair.

Historically, the majority of these images were made by men, which opens up the question of who pregnancy belongs to: this state where women are filled with both agency and vulnerability seems to put them unusually at the mercy of the male gaze. The women are sometimes serene, as in Hans Holbein’s wonderfully delicate 1527 drawing of Cecily Heron, daughter of Thomas More; sometimes smug, as in Peter Lely’s 1664 portrait of Charles II’s mistress Barbara Villiers, garbed as the Virgin Mary, pictured pregnant while holding a cherubic floating toddler aloft, intended to advertise the king’s saintliness and fertility.


But it may be the male portraitist’s feelings we’re seeing – especially when he’s the father of the child. It can be tough, when you’re pregnant, hearing a partner describe your state. I remember being unreasonably maddened, months later, by my husband’s announcement that the birth had gone well for me, at a point when every hour of labour still felt painfully present and was still playing out in my mind.

I felt something of this, too, in early pregnancy with my first child. The jubilant privacy of being alone with this new person got mixed up with how indescribably awful the exhaustion and the nausea could become. Other people’s descriptions sometimes felt as if they were trying to take the experience away from me, even when they were sympathetic and nuanced. Early on, I was also frightened that talking about it might somehow jinx it, because these peculiar changes were so invisible that I couldn’t quite believe a baby would follow.

So to be painted looking mutinously glum – as Kitty Garman was by Lucian Freud in 1947, a year before their marriage – may not be very welcome. It’s an extraordinary picture though. Garman, pregnant with their daughter Annie and draped in swathes of black velvet, is clutching a rose and seems to be staring white-faced into the future with a kind of electrifying foreboding. This is a moment of taking in the reality of change: presumably for the painter, as much as the sitter.

Celebration of the body … Jenny Saville’s Electra (2012). Photograph: Prudence Cuming/© Jenny Saville. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates. Courtesy the artist and Gagosian.

More pleasing, I find, is Augustus John’s portrait of his wife Ida, pregnant with her first child in 1901. They’d recently married and were enjoying domestic life, though Augustus had already hinted that he wasn’t going to consider himself overly constrained by domesticity. And Ida, while lovingly acquiring baby clothes by day, was experiencing the baby as a monstrous invader by night: “I dreamt last night that the baby came – an immense girl, the size of a two-year-old child – with thick lips, the under one hanging – little black eyes near together and a big fine nose. Altogether very like a savage – and most astonishing to us.”


In Augustus’s portrait, Ida leans backwards, showing off her belly. She glances sideways at the painter, appearing partly amused, partly irritated. It’s a look that tells him he can’t possibly understand. There’s a pleasure – even a three-way complicity between Augustus, Ida and the viewer – in seeing him take this in. Augustus knew that Ida’s life was about to get harder. And, imminently, there was the danger of death in childbirth. About five of every 100 births still resulted in death at the turn of the century. Today, it’s hard to recapture the feeling of terror this must have brought on, but the danger of childbirth emerges as a theme in this exhibition. There are several subjects here who didn’t survive the ordeal.

Most historically significant among these is Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales, painted in 1817 by George Dawe while pregnant with the child who would have succeeded her as heir to George IV’s throne. She sits in regal splendour looking away from the viewer, not yet visibly pregnant but wearing a silk blue tunic (that has survived and is included in the exhibition). The baby was stillborn, and the mother died shortly after. It was because of this that George was succeeded by his younger brother, William, and we ended up with Queen Victoria.

Mutinously glum … Kitty Garman portrayed by Lucian Freud in 1947. Photograph: Bridgeman Images

Perhaps unsurprisingly – perhaps because I trust them more – I found it was the female artists here who had most to say. The exceptions are the medieval and early-modern portraits of the Visitation: that moment in the Bible when the Virgin Mary, pregnant with Jesus, visits her cousin Elizabeth, pregnant with John the Baptist. At the sound of Mary’s greeting, Elizabeth apparently felt her baby quicken in her womb and representations usually depict the two women touching each other’s bellies, comparing flutters. It’s an affecting moment that speaks easily across centuries and cultures, humanising these women and their changing bodies, bringing out the volatility of pregnancy: here, now, a moment of change.


In more recent times, two of the women included here get across the strange flux of pregnancy very powerfully. In Chantal Joffe’s 2004 self-portrait, we can still see the paint dripping, changing colour as it dries. There’s a provisionality to the lines and shapes that suggests we’re seeing a painting in the act of being made, just as we’re seeing a body in the act of being formed. “Being pregnant,” Joffe says, “was like, ‘Wow, how brilliant to paint yourself changing so much.’” Even the spotted mismatched underwear has a carelessness that suggests this is a moment about to be succeeded by others.

In Jenny Saville’s 2012 Electra, lines and bodies multiply before our eyes. Saville gave birth to her first child in 2007, drawing herself throughout pregnancy and having herself photographed during the birth. She had always celebrated the bodies of women – bruised, contorted or mutilated – in portraits that owed something to Lucian Freud’s images of female fleshiness. Here she made the most of the opportunity to represent growth, layering images on top of each other. “You’re literally reproducing yourself when you’re pregnant,” she says, “like the way the lines reproduce themselves.”

Electrawas originally a drawing of one pregnant woman, but then Saville added a larger figure, clutching a child. It is unclear whose limbs are whose, and it seems possible that there are more people hidden amid the mass of charcoal lines. It’s an image of fleshy fecundity that’s both terrifying in its unstoppability and ecstatic in its profusion of touch. She takes charge of Freud’s imagery and makes it more fully yielding. As in the Visitations, there are hands at the centre of this picture, made all the more striking because they are gripped on to naked flesh. This is pregnancy and motherhood without serenity, without smugness, but given tenderly embodied form.

  • Portraying Pregnancy is at the Foundling Museum, London, until 26 April. Lara Feigel is the author of Free Woman: Life, Liberation and Doris Lessing.

Sex Education: a horny and morally good teen classic

On paper it should have been a disaster, but the second season of Netflix’s high-school drama is more than the sum of its parts.

On the prowl… Asa Butterfield and Ncuti Gatwa in Sex Education. Photograph: Netflix

Idon’t want to get all “surveillance state” about it but I’m pretty sure Netflix is on to us re: what we all do, in front of it, relentlessly, and is now commissioning TV appropriately. That’s the only explanation for Sex, Explained (Janelle Monáe-narrated PSHE-lesson-but-make-it-fun series where a bunch of hip young nose-ring Americans stare into a well-lit studio camera and say “spanking”) and Sex Education (second series of the bizarre English-but-make-it-American high-school sex counselling drama) dropping in the same miserable winter month.

I don’t know if Netflix can “see” us exactly, but if it can, and if they are commissioning based on the sheer concept of Netflix & Chill as a result, I’d appreciate them deleting the footage they took of me on 1 June last year in front of, inexplicably, two episodes of Rick and Morty.

Anyway, to Sex Education (from Friday, Netflix), which, on paper, is a disaster. Every attempt to describe it makes it so much worse than it is: a high school-based ensemble drama that deals head-on with Teen Issues, set in a sort of ageless period between 1970 and 2020 that makes you genuinely jolt when someone pulls a laptop out, with episodes that are frequently punctuated by glee band covers, and – and I cannot stress both how weird this is and how unacknowledged it is – is set in a sort of British parody of an American high school, with varsity jackets and teachers-as-friends and stuff like that.

The main characters are Nervous Boy (Asa Butterfield), Tough Girl Who Reads Books But Isn’t Afraid To Flip The Bird (Emma Mackey), Gay Best Friend With A Heart Of Gold And Complicated Struggles (Ncuti Gatwa) and then a roving cast of characters around them – Conflicted Bully, Anxiety Jock, Turbo-Horny Nerd Girl, Gleaming-Haired Popularity Queens, Headmaster With A Chocolate Addiction – and the entire concept is that our nervous boy, Otis, has become the school’s de facto sex education guru after learning so much from the straightforward therapising of his actual sex counsellor mother, Gillian Anderson (Open-Minded Mum With Sexy Wise Owl Energy). And everyone is like: “OK. We’ll go and visit the nervous virgin boy in the bathroom and tell him we’re afraid of anuses.” Everyone does that. Like it’s normal.

But somewhere between the descriptive paragraph and the screen some unseen alchemy happens, because Sex Education is brilliant: smart, woke without clanging you over the head with it, about teens but not only for teens, funny, aesthetically rich, and dramatic but without the usual drama of teen-set TV, where someone is always trashing a bedroom then sliding down a bathroom door crying because of an unplanned pregnancy. Series two shows early signs of picking up exactly where the first one left off: getting the old gang back together, STI panic across the school, a stellar selection of on-screen vintage jacketing and an incredibly visceral cumshot.

Again: this is a show that has sprays of ejaculate in it, but somehow manages to be wholesomely horny and morally good. A TV miracle.

The tiny ostrich eggshell beads that tell the story of Africa’s past

You can tell a lot about a person by the things they wear, and this has likely been true throughout human history. The earliest kind of decoration was probably ochre, which we know humans have used for at least 200,000 years.

By 75,000 years ago, people begin wearing beads. Since that time, ornaments and other symbols have been central to the way we express our identities and signal our relationships. In fact, this is probably one of the things that makes us human.

Ornament production really took off about 50,000 years ago, when we see the earliest standardised jewellery in the form of small disc beads made from ostrich eggshells. In Africa, ostrich eggshell beads are one of the most common type of archaeological artifacts, particularly from sites dated to the last 10,000 years. They are also found in smaller numbers throughout Asia where 12,000-year-old ostrich eggshell beads have been discovered in China.

Since ostrich eggshell bead jewellery is still produced today, this is one of the longest running cultural traditions in the world.

Beaders in Botswana.

But what can these beads tell us about the ancient peoples who made and wore them?

In a recently published paper, we analysed 1200 ostrich eggshell beads from 22 sites in southern Africa and 8 sites in eastern Africa. Although beads are found at many African archaeological sites, they tend to be overlooked in research. Many of the bead measurements for this study were taken from decades-old, unstudied collections and are being reported for the first time. We believe that this research demonstrates the importance of studying existing museum collections and approaching old questions in new ways.

Our aim was to see how ostrich eggshell bead size has changed over the past 10,000 years. Bead size has become an informal way to estimate the age of archaeological sites in southern Africa. Yet beads overall have received relatively little attention compared to other types of artefacts and there is much we still don’t know. Our study increases the number of published bead measurements from less than 100 to over 1000, allowing us to study patterns on a larger scale and gain new perspectives on the African past.

Ostrich eggshell beads at an archaeological site. Elizabeth Sawchuk

Our findings provide important insights into how ancient peoples responded to change. Topics like migration and the economy dominate today’s new cycle. Yet ancient peoples also faced issues like climate changecultural contact, and economic shifts. The things that people made and used, like ostrich eggshell beads, can help us understand the impacts of these changes on their lives.

Herders versus hunter-gatherers

Three decades ago, the archaeologist Leon Jacobson noticed a pattern in ostrich eggshell beads from Namibia. Those associated with hunter-gatherer sites tended to be smaller than those associated with herder sites. Since we know that herding entered southern Africa around 2000 years ago, Jacobson suggested that sites with beads larger than about 7.5mm might be younger than that.

Other studies confirmed the same pattern within the western part of southern Africa. Some researchers also argued that bead size might help distinguish which sites were used by herders versus hunter-gatherers. But this remains contested.

Until now, the idea that ostrich eggshell beads changed with the introduction of herding had only been tested in the southern part of Africa, and with a limited number of sites. We therefore decided to test this with a much larger dataset, and in other places like eastern Africa where herding also spread some 3000 years earlier.

Modern ostrich eggshell beads. Hans Sell

Regional variations

At the southern African sites, we also found that larger beads appeared after 2000 years ago. However, contrary to previous studies, our data show that these larger beads did not replace long-standing bead traditions. In fact, the vast majority of ostrich eggshell beads continued to be quite small. On the other hand, beads from the eastern African sites were highly variable in size and showed no change when herding entered that region around 5000 years ago.

Ostrich eggshell beads in eastern and southern Africa seem to tell a different story about herding’s spread. Cattle, sheep and goats are not native to either of these regions and must have been introduced by contact with peoples living farther north.

In both places, groups also made ostrich eggshell beads before and after herding spread.

In eastern Africa, the lack of change in bead size could suggest that local hunter-gatherers adopted livestock, or that incoming herders possessed similar traditions and/or quickly adopted local styles.


In southern Africa, the appearance of larger beads around 2000 years ago suggests the introduction of livestock stimulated a change in bead traditions, or that new styles were introduced at the same time as sheep.

Yet in both places, local bead traditions remained dominant. Curiously, the larger beads in southern Africa fall within the range of eastern African beads, hinting at contact between these regions as suggested by other archaeological evidence and ancient DNA.

Our research findings suggest that the spread of herding into new areas did not lead to the replacement of local peoples and practices. Rather, people responded in more nuanced ways and maintained certain cultural traditions.

This research not only helps us understand the African past, but is important for considering how we as humans use culture to cope with the changes in our world.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker review – a thrilling, fun-filled, light-speed finale

Rating: 4 out of 5.
Sexual tension … Adam Driver as Kylo Ren and Daisy Ridley as Rey in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Photograph: Allstar/Lucasfilm/Walt Disney Pictures
Flying stormtroopers, lightsaber duels and a resurrected evil lord … the hugely entertaining final episode in the nine-film saga brims with euphoric energy 

So the ninth and last (we think) movie in the Star Wars saga arrives, and there’s only one thing on our minds. When will Darth Vader’s disturbing grandson, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), and Rey (Daisy Ridley) do something about their outrageously obvious telepathic sexual tension and just get a room already? When will they do something about the symbolism of these lightsaber duels of theirs, secure a furtive daytime booking at some intergalactic Premier Inn and give us the most rock’n’roll sex scene – come to think of it, the only sex scene – in Star Wars history? Surely the suits at Disney would be OK with it? Well, oddly, the symbolism of Romeo and Juliet (as well as Dunkirk) might just occur to you in the course of this crazily but very entertainingly grandiloquent adventure.


Now, The Rise of Skywalker has been rather coolly received in some quarters, and I certainly think it isn’t quite as strong as The Last Jedi, around which critical consensus has gathered. (In this trilogy of trilogies, incidentally, it is the second film in each trio – The Empire Strikes Back, Attack of the Clones and The Last Jedi – that has been the strongest episode, though Clones did not have much competition.) There is, I admit, some excessive MacGuffinism (the use of arbitrary objects to drive the story), especially when everyone conceives a great desire to get hold of a supernaturally potent glass tetrahedron, which is then smashed before someone miraculously comes across another mystically significant glass tetrahedron, murmuring: “Oh, there were two!”

 The gang’s all here … Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron. Photograph: Allstar/Lucasfilm/Walt Disney Pictures

Which brings us to the second flaw in episode nine: a habit of nullifying jeopardy by perpetually bringing dead people or things back to life. People are forever dying and then returning to the screen, either as poignant memories, or quasi-ghosts, or horribly unnatural resurrections. Partly, I think this is an over-writing flaw, with director JJ Abrams (having taken over from Colin Trevorrow over “creative differences”) working with co-writer Chris Terrio and perhaps over-zealously trying to correct what fans saw as the fault with The Last Jedi and to cover as much ground and as many alternative realities as possible, in the service of a resounding finality. In fact, the ending is no cop-out. There is real sacrifice.


And, to some degree, the dying-not-dying motif was forced on Abrams and Terrio by the fact that Carrie Fisher, who plays General Leia Organa died after the last film, and her marginal presence here has been fabricated with a piece of unused footage in which Fisher is making general-purpose observations that have been ingeniously sewn into dialogue scenes.

The situation now is that Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) has returned, after we all thought we’d heard the last of him. He has been resurrected in an almost satanic procedure as the artificially galvanised undead Sith lord, wired up to some source of daemonic Sith energy. From here, Palpatine plans to embark on a new insurgency of evil from the First Order, in which General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and Allegiant General Pryde (Richard E Grant) will be complicit and which involves the agonised, almost tragic figure of Kylo Ren, the Order’s leader. And Driver’s performance is genuinely excellent – he brings an absolute commitment to the role, distinguishing it from the tongue-in-cheek black comedy of Gleeson, and, however absurd it sounds, there is subtlety and even delicacy in his vocal range.

Riders in the storm … John Boyega and Naomi Ackie. Photograph: Allstar/Lucasfilm/Walt Disney Pictures

What this means is a gallant fightback from the Resistance and the old gang springing into action: Rey, Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac), Chewie (Joonas Suotamo) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels). There is great chemistry and ésprit de corps between them all as they helter-skelter anarchically and almost plotlessly from exotic planet location to exotic planet location, going into full Indiana Jones mode as they barrel about – incidentally discovering, to their enormous chagrin, that stormtroopers can fly these days.

Of course, just as with The Last Jedi and The Force Awakens, very familiar tropes and plotlines are being revived, and maybe the distinctive theme of this trilogy is this fan-fiction-style tribute to the first films. But, however preposterous, The Rise of Skywalker is socked over with such energy, such euphoric certainty. And it’s such fun: full of the rackety exuberance of the now forgotten Saturday morning movie serials that were an influence on George Lucas. Comedy was, incidentally, the keynote of Ron Howard’s excellent and very underrated non-Skywalker-saga Solo: A Star Wars Story. It’s right now for the saga to end, or at any rate to lie fallow, and to leave us with such an exhilarating flourish.

Best Songs of 2019 – world

Young women blurring genres, global artists pushing boundaries and a rapper playing with a meme made the most exciting tracks of the year.

Going way, way over the top, Lizzo’s knowing but wholehearted take on an old-fashioned, orchestral soul ballad tosses around profanities as she belts it to the rafters.

A few tolling piano notes open a world of loneliness, cavernous and barren, around FKA twigs’ voice as she copes with self-doubt, jealousy and aching need.

The calm, husky tone and understated beats of Burna Boy, from Nigeria, belie a determination to unite Africa and its diaspora. This track from his 2019 album, “African Giant,” is both insinuating and ambitious.

Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker.Credit…Amy Harris/Invision, via Associated Press

Carried by pulsing keyboards and a bashing beat, Kevin Parker — the one-man studio band Tame Impala — confronts all the misgivings of being a grown-up still making pop music.

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From the album “Ghosteen,” Nick Cave’s magnificently sustained reverie on grief, family and eternity, comes this billowing waltz, a mythic vision that falls to earth and finds another way to ascend.

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Crescendos rise like tidal waves in this retro, string-laden torch song that carries girl-group drama to an operatic peak.

A meditative, mysterious song about time, transformation and connection, fervently sung over folky acoustic guitars.

Khalid pleads for conversation on “Talk.”Credit…Mackenzie Sweetnam/Getty Images

Khalid’s approach couldn’t be more sensitive — “Can’t we just talk/Figure out where we’re going?” — as synthesizer chords tiptoe forward ever so tentatively, even as the tryst proceeds.

In a whispery, bedroom-sized reduction of grungy indie rock, Clairo ponders whether physical attraction will outweigh a lovers’ quarrel, striving to maintain her deadpan as feelings surge.

A Mexican-American born in Los Angeles, Angelica Garcia proclaims her bicultural heritage — “wearing my roots and flying this flag” — over a snowballing, polyrhythmic buildup that melds Mexican rhythms and electronic savvy.

The perpetually rebellious Algerian songwriter Rachid Taha left behind an album in progress when he died in 2018. Its title song, “Je Suis Africain,” praises an African heritage that extends worldwide, and backs it up with a Pan-African groove fusing elements from Congo, Senegal, Algeria and beyond.

Bruce Hornsby melds chamber music, jazz, Minimalism and a folksy hoedown with some science-based metaphors to offer advice and warnings for the future of humanity. Cosmic enough?


Soul music’s gospel foundations sustain Baby Rose’s strikingly deep, tearful voice as she faces a modern quandary: Should she drunk-dial her ex?

A Venezuelan singer who moved to the United States and attended Berklee College of Music, Nella won the 2019 Latin Grammy for best new artist. She forged a trans-Atlantic musical partnership with Javier Limón, a Spanish producer and songwriter who brought out her affinity for flamenco and wrote “Voy” (“I Go”), a lean, lilting song about picking up and moving into the unknown.

Rockabilly meets Radiohead, with a backbeat below and a canopy of feedback above Adia Victoria’s voice, in “A Different Kind of Love.” It’s a checklist of failed romances from a songwriter pushing Americana toward sonic experimentation.

Inua Ellams transfers Chekhov to Nigeria

Buoyed by first-rate performances, this production transforms the Russian classic into an eye-opening account of the Biafran war.

Chekhov sometimes gets in the way in this too-faithful adaptation … Three Sisters at the National Theatre, London. Photograph: Richard Davenport/The Other Richard

Inua Ellams describes his new play, his first since Barber Shop Chronicles, as “after Chekhov”. He has taken the characters of Three Sisters and relocate them from provincial Russia to Nigeria between 1967 and 1970 during Biafra’s attempted secession.

The result is a startlingly vivid account of the civil war and a direct assault on British neocolonialism. I just wish Ellams had been less faithful to Chekhov. Structurally, the play stays close to the template. It is set in a village in Owerri, where three sisters think back longingly to Lagos. One of them, Lolo, is a hard-working teacher; the married middle sister, Nne Chukwu, has an affair with a military commander; the youngest, Udo, sees her dreams of happiness shattered.


All of this is true to Chekhov. But we also see the brutal consequences of civil war, including death and starvation, and at the end we witness Biafra’s doomed attempt to create a separate republic.

Ellams brilliantly uses the context to sharpen specific relationships. The hostility of the sisters to their brother’s wife, which in the original seems like snobbery, is explained by the fact that they belong to the dominant Igbo ethnic group, while she is a Yorùbá. The reason for the failure of Nne Chukwu’s marriage also becomes clear when you realise it was arranged when she was 12. Above all, the play offers a searing attack on British responsibility for the war dating to the time when they created Nigeria out of 250 ethnic groups and languages.

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While the play offers an eye-opening account of the civil war, Chekhov sometimes gets in the way. The point of the original is that, in the course of three years, nothing essentially changes. Here, however, we see a brave vision of Biafran independence being fatally shattered. Although Nne Chukwu attacks Udo for worrying about private problems during a period of public upheaval, her own affair with the commander also loses some of its dramatic significance as the country is being torn apart.

For all my cavils about Ellams grafting a new play on to an old model, Nadia Fall’s visually impressive production contains a host of fine performances. Sarah Niles makes Lolo a politically vigorous figure who vehemently attacks both British colonialism and Igbo tribalism. Natalie Simpson movingly conveys Nne Chukwu’s lifelong resentment at an enforced marriage and Racheal Ofori shows Udo’s transition from naive optimism to acceptance of tragic reality.

But there is strength in depth throughout the company. Ken Nwosu hints at the vanity behind the commander’s philosophising, Tobi Bamtefa disintegrates memorably as the sisters’ once high-flying brother and Jude Akuwudike is all growing disillusion as the brigade doctor. Ronke Adekoluejo also has the right brashness as the brother’s Yoruba bride, whose own clandestine affair actually ensures the family is fed, and Anni Domingo as an elderly retainer embodies the bolshy outspokenness of age.


The production and the performances are first-rate, and the house rose spontaneously at the end of a long evening. Yet I still wish Ellams had been even more ruthlessly radical in rewriting Chekhov.

Abandoned baby Giraffe dies with dog by its side

The giraffe had bonded with a watchdog, named Hunter, at a South African animal shelter. It collapsed after a brain hemorrhage.

Hunter, a young Belgian Malinois, keeping an eye on Jazz last month.Credit…Jerome Delay/Associated Press
  • By The Associated Press

A baby giraffe that was befriended by a dog after he was abandoned in the wild has died, a South African animal orphanage said.

The giraffe, named Jazz, collapsed after suffering a brain hemorrhage, the Rhino Orphanage in Limpopo Province said in a Facebook post on Friday.

“Our team is heartbroken,” the orphanage said. “The last two days before we lost him, Jazz started looking unstable on his legs and very dull, almost like he wasn’t registering everything,” it added. “He suddenly collapsed and we could see blood starting to pool back into his eyes.”


The baby giraffe had arrived at the orphanage a few weeks ago, just days after its birth. A farmer found him in the wild, weak and dehydrated, and called the center for help.

A baby giraffe that was befriended by a dog after he was abandoned in the wild has died, a South African animal orphanage said.

The giraffe, named Jazz, collapsed after suffering a brain hemorrhage, the Rhino Orphanage in Limpopo Province said in a Facebook post on Friday.

“Our team is heartbroken,” the orphanage said. “The last two days before we lost him, Jazz started looking unstable on his legs and very dull, almost like he wasn’t registering everything,” it added. “He suddenly collapsed and we could see blood starting to pool back into his eyes.”


The baby giraffe had arrived at the orphanage a few weeks ago, just days after its birth. A farmer found him in the wild, weak and dehydrated, and called the center for help.

When the giraffe became ill, Hunter seemed to realize something was wrong and did not leave the baby giraffe’s side, the orphanage said. The dog was there when the giraffe died, and sat in front of the empty room for hours before going to its carers for comfort.

Orphanage staff members had assumed that the mother giraffe had abandoned the baby for a reason, and had suspected an illness, Arrie van Deventer, the orphanage’s founder, said.

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“We finally know that Jazz didn’t have a bad giraffe mother that left him,” the orphanage’s statement said. “She just knew.”

In its farewell to the giraffe, the orphanage said, “You have taught us so much in the last three weeks, and we will remember you fondly.”

The giraffe was buried close to the orphanage, Mr. van Deventer said.

The post had thousands of views and hundreds of comments expressing sadness for the giraffe’s death and concern for how Hunter would handle the loss.

Janie Van Heerden feeding Jazz, then 9 days old. The giraffe was abandoned by its mother at birth.Credit…Jerome Delay/Associated Press

The orphanage said that Hunter was doing well and would continue training to be a tracking dog.

A final photo showed Hunter sitting in front of the closed door of the room where he and the giraffe had spent time together. The orphanage also paid tribute to Hunter’s loyalty.

“He stayed till the end and said his goodbyes,” it said. “Such a good boy.”

Movie review: When Lambs Become Lions

The documentarian Jon Kasbe spent years among elephant hunters in Kenya, and his movie is an intense 74-minute distillation of his efforts.

A view from the documentary “When Lambs Become Lions.”Credit…Oscilloscope

By Glenn Kenny

Ivory poaching is a practice no one could possibly approve of: To further endanger the elephant species by killing individual animals is immoral. Some will tell you this isn’t just conventional wisdom; it’s a bedrock truth. Maddeningly, the ivory trade exists nevertheless.

So the documentarian Jon Kasbe gave himself a particularly daunting challenge when he set out to make “When Lambs Become Lions,” a picture about ivory poaching told largely from the perspective of those who do it.


In the economic wasteland of Kenya, an ivory dealer here called X plays the slick outlaw. “God has given me a sweet tongue and a sharp brain,” he says, adding, “I have no fear in my heart.” He’s easy to dislike, but he’s a desperate character who was born into the practice. He speaks of how he never kills elephants himself. That’s up to his comrade Lukas, who shoots the great beasts with poison arrows.

X has a cousin, Asan, who works as a ranger in a patrol assigned to stamp out poaching. His outfit hasn’t been paid in months. So he’s tempted to abet X and Lukas on an expedition. “The devil will burn you,” Asan’s young son yells at him.

Kasbe spent years among these people, and his movie is an intense 74-minute distillation of his dedication. It doesn’t go into the origins of the trade or how pressures from Western countries feed it. Rather, it’s a striking, human portrait of men in trouble, looking for escape and possibly redemption.


When Lambs Become Lions

Not rated. In Swahili, with subtitles, and English. Running time: 1 hour 14 minutes.

  • Director: Jon Kasbe
  • Running Time: 1h 19m
  • Genre: Documentary

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Best TV Shows of 2019

By Gbenga Adesanya

Television shows serve a variety of purposes, ranging from entertainment, education, enlightenment, youth empowerment, products and services promotion, depending on the type of show. Television shows fall into two basic categories, Scripted and Unscripted, and these two are
containers for several sub-groups. Some of them are outlined below:

  • News
  • Current Affairs
  • Magazine Shows
  • Variety Shows
  • Sport Shows
  • Drama
  • Documentary
  • Reality Shows
  • Game Shows
  • Music Shows
  • Award Shows
  • Webisodes

Most of the shows have entertainment at their core, hence our focus would be on those that offer a great deal of entertainment, and are popular with Nigerians in the year This list is not a ranking, and will come in no
particular order.


The Johnsons

The Johnsons is a sitcom that guarantees laughter for the family. The show is a day to day expose on the peculiar individuality of its characters. Its ensemble of comic characters like Charles Inojie, Ngozi Nwosu, Chinedu
Ikedize, Ada Ameh, Kunle Bantefa and many more, also make the show a popular one with Nigerians, so much so that it has Hausa language version.

Jennifer’s diary

The drama strives to teach morals regarding situations that often go unnoticed because they happen within the family, or unwisely allowed to degenerate. Started in 2012, the comedy series continues to win admiration from viewers across Nigeria. Jennifer’s Diary is one of the most popular comedy series on Nigerian televisions. It tells the story of Jennifer (Funke Akindele), an illiterate but street smart girl who does not let her obvious lack of education come in the way of her vision, hence rises to success by sheer determination. Aside being funny, Jennifer’s Diary is always bringing up some of the best comic acts in the entertainment industry. Jennifer’s Diary retains has a singular reputation of the most talked about comedy series on social media, with its unique repertoire of
high profile acts and incredible vocabulary.

My Flatmates

My Flatmates, starring Bright Okpocha (Basketmouth), Steve Onu (Yaw), Okey Bakassi, Emmanuel Ikubese and others, is another popular comedy series on Nigerian televisions.
The story revolves around incredible flatmates who, in desperation to be comfortable, play all kinds of pranks on one another, and often ending up with unintended consequences. My flatmates has remained one of the television shows families look forward to.


Battle Ground

Battle Ground is a high profile drama that deals with relationship, infidelity, betrayal, romance and politics.

The Bhadmus family is deeply tested when a tragedy causes hitherto unknown secrets to come to the open, and power conflicts start among family members. Bhadmus cheats on his wife and secretly marries his mistress who also has children for him, but when an unexpected tragedy occurs, the Bhadmus world is thrown into a crisis. The television series started in 2017 and took the airwaves by storm, especially because of the calibre of cast and crew involved in the production, making it one of the most seen drama of 2019.


Tinsel, arguably one of the most successful and longest drama in recent times. Tinsel, started airing in 2008, and has been waxing stronger till date.

The story centres around two rival film companies, Reel Studios owned by Chief Fred Ade-Williams (Victor Olaotan) and Odyssey Pictures, headed by Brenda, Nana Mensah (Funmilola Aofiyebi-Raim), both determined to outdo each other in a fierce battle to be the box office favourite. Tinsel is reputed to have showcased and is still showcasing lots of acting veterans, as well as giving opportunities to a lot of new generation of actors.

Shuga Naija

Shuga Naija is a star studded drama that treats issues relating to youths like relationships, peer pressure, sexual health, mental health, empowerment, domestic violence and other family related matters. The drama is more of a campaign targeted at educating the family, hence the high power generated by the stars and topics make the show, the biggest export of recent times.


Big Brother Naija

Big Brother Naija is Nigeria’s biggest reality show, a franchise from the Big Brother Series wherein 12 contestants stay together in a house, under surveillance for 3 months while each avoids being evicted until there
is a last man standing who wins a huge cash and other premium prizes. The show is a huge platform for young men and women to achieve celebrity status, and in some cases, win huge contracts. The 2019 edition was the first to have a woman win on the show.


The Next Titan is a youth empowerment reality show that invites youths from all over Nigeria to showcase their business ingenuity through excellent pitches, business originality, and the commercial viability of their ideas through keen contests with other contenders for a huge cash prize. It gives young men and women a lifeline to access a huge haul of finance to bring their winning ideas to life. The Next Titan occupies an enviable spot
on Nigerian televisions, and a lot of youths passionately look out for it.

Nigeria Got Ideas is a global, brand building platform that is interested in triggering employment and wealth by repositioning existing local and youth entrepreneurs for global excellence. The reality show seeks out young and
intelligent entrepreneurs who are not afraid to face challenges, get them to pitch their businesses and improve their capacity with business knowledge that come handy when connected with successful global brands.

Affirming the earlier position, this is not a ranking nor a complete list. Also of note is the fact that some of these shows didn’t happen this year for various reasons, but have made very strong impressions on Nigerians.

The vegans are coming!

Between the rise of plant-based sausages and veggie burgers that “bleed”, vegan protesters at supermarkets, and Disney adding hundreds of vegan items to its theme park menus, veganism is in the news. Not to mention the woman trying to sue her neighbours for their meat-grilling ways. For a group once perceived as placid and potentially anaemic, vegans have sure been making a lot of noise.

By Matthew Ruby

Who are the “new vegans” and what is behind their rise in prominence?

Origin story

The term “vegan” was coined in 1944 by a group of people in the UK to describe a diet excluding meat, fish, dairy, and eggs. In 1988, the UK Vegan Society settled on a definition of veganism that described it as:

“… a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose”.


For many years, veganism had relatively few adherents, and was largely dismissed as a fringe movement, if not met with outright hostility.

In his 2000 book, Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain, didn’t mince his words:

Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn. To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace, or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living.

Bourdain was by no means alone in his view of vegans. An analysis of stories run in UK national newspapers in 2007 that used the words “vegan”, “vegans”, or “veganism” found that 74% of articles portrayed veganism negatively – describing vegans as hostile, oversensitive, or ridiculous.

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Despite an initial bad rap, interest in veganism has been growing, particularly in the past decade. Data from Google Trends indicates that the relative frequency of Google searches for “vegan” has approximately quadrupled since 2012.

The increasing popularity of veganism

Note: Numbers represent search interest relative to the highest point on the chart for the given region and time. A value of 100 is the peak popularity for the term. A value of 50 means that the term is half as popular. A score of 0 means there was not enough data for this term.
Source: Google Trends  Get the data

A number of prominent public figures, such as Moby, Angela Davis, Bill Clinton, and Ellen Degeneres, have drawn attention to veganism. At the same time, numerous studies and reports have discussed links between meat consumption and health and environmental outcomes.

Media outlets such as The GuardianNBC, and The New York Times have run stories on the mistreatment of animals on factory farms. Furthermore, popular movies such as Okja, about a young girl and her pig-like best friend, have been credited with turning people toward plant-based diets.

Challenging stereotypes

As veganism becomes more prominent, a number of people are challenging conventional beliefs, particularly the idea that one needs to eat animal products to be strong and healthy.

Touring at film festivals in 2018, and reaching mainstream Australian cinemas in August, The Game Changers draws on a mixture of dramatic footage, scientific studies, and celebrity glamour.


Executive produced by a team including James Cameron, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jackie Chan, Lewis Hamilton, Novak Djokovic, and Chris Paul, The Game Changers bills itself as “a revolutionary new documentary about meat, protein, and strength”, and challenges the old stereotype of vegans as weak.

Vegan athletes stand in stark contrast to old-fashioned portrayals of hippie vegetarians.

The film follows combat instructor and UFC fighter James Wilks as he travels around the world meeting people like world surfing champion Tia Blanco, eight-time US national cycling champion Dotsie Bausch, and strongman Patrick Baboumian. Sitting down with the chair of nutrition at Harvard University, Dr Walter Willett, Wilks discusses the benefits of plant-based diets.

Motivation and location

Although vegans are often motivated by some combination of concern for animal welfare, animal rights, health, and environmental sustainability, individuals often emphasise particular motivations more strongly than others.


Chef and activist Bryant Terry has written and spoken extensively on the health and food justice aspects of veganism. Youth climate activist Greta Thunberg adopted a vegan diet for environmental reasons. The Forest Green Rovers Football Club transitioned the food in their stadium to be 100% vegan in 2015, out of concern for animal welfare and environmental sustainability.

Other common motivations are religious and spiritual beliefsadherence to social norms, a preference for the taste, smell, and texture of plant foods, and an explicit rejection of mainstream industries that treat animals like commodities.

Spanish protesters on World Vegan Day. Andreu Dalmau/AAP

East meets West

Although veganism is often discussed through a Western cultural lens, several Eastern philosophies – such as Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Taoism – favour plant-based diets. Hinduism, practiced by the majority of India’s population, has a history of plant-based diets extending across thousands of years.

While in many Western countries, vegans may be negatively stereotyped or face social alienation, responses to those following plant-based diets in other cultures differ markedly.

In India, for example, the present day food hierarchy places a plant-based diet at the top as it is associated with a higher status. The slaughter of animals and meat-eating is associated with a certain baseness and physical and spiritual pollution.

Customers and traders in a street market in Jaipur.

Similarly, many people in China regard plant-based eating as central to physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. In 2016, the Chinese government released updated dietary guidelines encouraging their population of more than 1.3 billion to reduce their meat consumption by 50% between now and 2030 for primarily health-related reasons.

Reaction to veganism in other cultures is not always positive though. Japanese media has expressed concern about how vegan tourists and locals can maintain their diet in a nation “hooked on meat”.

Is the future plant-based?

Today, countries with traditionally meat-based diets – such as Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and South Africa – are among the world’s top ten when it comes to the global share of vegan product launches.


The adoption of plant-based diets and lifestyles is projected to keep rising. For example, the percentage of Italians who identified as vegan nearly doubled from 2016 to 2018, and the number of vegans in the UK quadrupled between 2014 and 2018.

In 2017, the global plant protein market was valued at US$10.5 billion (A$15.65 billion) and this number is predicted to increase to USD $16.3 billion (A$24.3 billion) by 2025.

In the future we can expect to see and hear more from those who choose not to consume animal products.

Playing an instrument can improve a child’s memory, coordination and teach them perseverance. Photograph: Raymond Forbes LLC/Stocksy United

Five ways to get your family into classical music

Classical music offers something for everyone, says Kate Faithfull-Williams, from toddlers to teens to the kid rolling their eyes as they read this over your shoulder.

Playing an instrument can improve a child’s memory, coordination and teach them perseverance. Photograph: Raymond Forbes LLC/Stocksy United
Playing an instrument can improve a child’s memory, coordination and teach them perseverance. Photograph: Raymond Forbes LLC/Stocksy United

Classical music can be daunting. With a genre dating back hundreds of years, the choices are overwhelming. So where do you start? With the benefits, that’s where.

“Music brings people together and helps kids – and parents – listen better,” says composer John Webb, who has worked with everyone from five-year-old songwriters to traditional Indian musicians and a virtual symphony orchestra to introduce new audiences to classical music. Classical tracks are also scientifically proven to relieve stressboost brainpower and even help us be more open emotionally – all good news for happy families. So, here’s how to get involved …


Toddlers and preschoolers
“Young kids are innately musical,” says Webb, mimicking the singsong speech and extended vowel sounds we instinctively use with small people – “Ooh what a bee-yoo-tiful baby”. Children have an unrepressed desire to dance, too. “Kids move in different ways to different music, tiptoeing, stamping and twirling,” explains Webb.

So how can you bring out the best in your mini maestro? Composer Oliver Davis, whose 2018 album Liberty topped the iTunes Classical Charts, says: “Try listening to Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saëns, which describes lots of wild animals through music.”

From age five to eight
Did you know that this is the prime age for children to write music? “Kids naturally make up their own songs as they play,” says Webb, who generously describes those improvised 10-second tunes as, “mashups”. To enhance that natural ability, he advises using a story as a hook. “Kids love stories, and quickly understand that different notes and speeds of music create a sense of character. Classical music is easily simplified and it can be creative and powerful for children.”

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Want to get involved? Try something like the BBC Singers Family Concert (9 February 2020, Milton Court Concert Hall, Barbican, London; prices from £5), which promises to be very interactive and is aimed at kids aged five and over. Alternatively, join the BBC Concert Orchestra at Musical Roots(22 February 2020, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, London; prices from £5) for a magical adventure the whole family can enjoy, exploring exciting and unusual connections between composers, their music and their families.

From age nine to 12
You may know that playing an instrument can improve a child’s memory and coordination, and teach them perseverance. You definitely know that persuading your pre-teen to practise playing an instrument is like lighting a stick of dynamite, so explosive are the arguments.


The solution, suggests Davis, could be as simple as inspiring your child by letting them see someone older play their instrument expertly. The BBC is laying on two upcoming events that will transport young people into a different world and get them excited about playing.

Try Family Total Immersion: Lift Off! (1 December, Barbican Hall, London; prices from £5) with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, which celebrates 50 years since the moon landing with live music, interactive workshops and film to take you on a musical adventure through space. Best of all, there are more than two hours of drop-in foyer activities, including the chance for kids to try a variety of instruments before the show.

David Walliams is also doing a special performance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (2 May 2020, Barbican, London; prices from £5), which is virtually guaranteed to hook kids into playing classical music. Walliams will read from his bestselling children’s books, including Bad Dad and The World’s Worst Children, alongside musical treats from a full orchestra.

The teenage years
Can parents introduce anything to their sceptical teen? “The kiss of death is for a parent to show keenness,” warns Webb. “Osmosis is your best bet, so play the pieces you like at home. Go for tracks with a pounding rhythm and bleakness, like Shostakovich Symphony No 5, as the raw energy and emotion may get your teen’s attention.”

Film can also be a good entry point for teenagers. “I would always point towards innovative composers and performers who are very current,” says Davis. “So maybe don’t start with Mozart. Instead, go for composers like Max Richter, who scored Mary Queen of Scots,or Joby Talbot, who scored The League of Gentlemen. Both Richter and Talbot are also serious concert hall composers in their own right.” Talbot’s Everest will be performed with the BBC Symphony Orchestra next year (20 June 2020, Barbican Hall, London; prices from £10).


If all else fails …
Stealth is a weapon at your disposal. “There are so many great concerts out there, but the mistake is dragging a reluctant child to a classical concert and expecting them to walk out enlightened and interested,” warns Davis. “So find an appropriate concert of music your child might grow to like and research the music that’s going to be performed. Play sections of it in the car and at home ahead of the concert. Otherwise it’s a huge amount to take in. As the composer Philip Glass once said: ‘People don’t know what they love, they love what they know.’”

Learn more about getting the whole family into classical music with advice and events from the BBC’s Get Involved initiative

UK represented… Blue Story.

Blue story has been banned from cinemas, but it shouldn’t be

A fight broke out at a cinema screening this vital new film representing the black British experience. To ban it demonstrates exactly why people need to see it.

UK represented… Blue Story.
UK represented… Blue Story.

I saw Blue Story on Saturday night in south London. The cinema was packed – mostly with young black teenagers – and the atmosphere was lively. The film tells the tragically familiar story of two childhood friends who get caught up in gangs from rival postcodes at war on the streets of London. We were very invested in the movie; it spoke to everyone in the room. The shared anguish at the sense of impending tragedy whenever someone was asked that fateful question “Where you from?” was palpable, as was the abandon with which we laughed in its lighter moments.

Afterwards, my friend and I said how elated we were at this level of representation on the big screen. The characters’ school could have been the one I went to; the kids could have been my classmates; the male protagonists could be my younger brother and his friends. It was a powerful experience, feeling a film landing with an audience that clearly wanted to see it – to see these stories go mainstream.


Since its release last Friday, the film has been caught up in controversy after a mass brawl involving teenagers erupted in Birmingham, with footage showing the teenagers fighting inside a cinema foyer. In response, Vue and Showcase cinemas have withdrawn the film.

My first thought when I heard this was: “I’m tired.” The film never suggests that being in a gang is a good idea. In its tragic depiction of the loss of innocence and the trauma inflicted on communities, Blue Story is told with an energy and clarity that spring from the personal experience of the director, Andrew Onwubolu – AKA Rapman. Banning it is at best an overreaction and at worst a dismissal of one of its core messages: that good kids can lose their way and fall into a cycle of violence and retaliation.

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As police investigate the awful incident in Birmingham, I can only echo Rapman’s measured reaction in hoping that blame is ultimately placed with the individuals. At the time of writing, West Midlands police have not established any connection with the film, nor did they recommend a ban, details woefully glossed over in much of the media coverage. Four out of the five people so far arrested (now bailed) are too young to have got into a 15-rated film, and it remains unclear how and why the fight broke out and what they were there to watch.

It therefore makes little sense that Vue decided there was a causal link to Blue Story. It needs to seriously ask why it was quick to make one. More than anything, I’m also gutted for the creators. It is hard to overstate how important a moment this is for black British film-making.


The film’s release should have been a celebration. It is a shame that this incident not only cut opening box office figures, but is now dominating the narrative.

There has long been a dearth of homegrown representation on the big screen to help us make sense of our violent times. That this unfortunate incident coincided with Blue Story’s opening weekend demonstrates, in the most compelling way possible (albeit with distressing irony), precisely why people need to see it.

Movie review: Hello and Goodbye – Athol Fugard’s dark reunion gets under the skin

Fugard’s profound examination of a South African family ripped apart by a workplace accident is devastatingly brilliant.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
Quivering with uncertainty … Jo Mousley and Emilio Iannucci in Hello and Goodbye. Photograph: Jane Hobson

Hello. Goodbye. These two small, unassuming words bookend Athol Fugard’s fleeting reunion of an estranged brother and sister. Like the play itself, these mundane utterances conceal a hidden well of emotion and meaning. What looks like a slight domestic drama digs, gradually, into dark and profound territory.

Hester has returned to her hated childhood home in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. When she departed 12 years ago, her younger brother Johnnie was left behind to care for their father – a stern, religious man who was robbed of his living and one of his legs in a workplace accident. Now, Hester is back to confront the past and claim her share of the compensation.

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There’s something Beckettian about Hello and Goodbye’s existential despair and loneliness – particularly in the long, jagged monologues. John R Wilkinson’s gloomy production strengthens this association, situating Fugard’s drama in a blasted memoryscape.


In Laura Ann Price’s haunting design, the walls of the house are torn and the floor is littered with rubble. It’s as though the explosion that injured Hester and Johnnie’s domineering father has also ripped through the family home, leaving it – and the two siblings – irreparably damaged.

Under Sara Burns’ dim, subtly shifting lighting, Hester and Johnnie wrestle with the remnants of their shared past, which pile up on the stage around them. As Hester, Jo Mousley enters with disdainful poise, only to become more and more undone.

Meanwhile, Emilio Iannucci’s Johnnie quivers with uncertainty, forever on the precipice of mental breakdown. Their struggle is played out with intense, devastating brilliance. It’s not an easy watch, but it works its way under the skin.

• At York Theatre Royal until 30 November.

Meet the man who dedicated his life to saving reptiles

Tomas Diagne is a finalist in this year’s TUSK Award for Conservation in Africa. Sarah Marshall shares his incredible story.

In the last 26 years, Tomas has established centres for turtle protection and captive breeding programmes

By Sarah Marshall

Driving 1,200 miles across the east coast of America is an epic journey to make for one animal – especially if the creature in question is dead. But when Tomas Diagne was offered the body of a Nubian flapshell turtle, the most endangered turtle species in Africa, he couldn’t refuse.

“For 30 years, we haven’t had any recorded sightings of these animals that live in South Sudan and southern Chad,” says the Senegalese biologist, who admits he spent $2,000 to collect the cadaver from a US-based private collector, bury it in his American wife’s back garden and send it to an osteology museum three months later to have the skeleton cleaned and articulated.


“Lucy kept saying, ‘I hope the neighbours don’t think we have a human body’,” he jokes, aware of how ridiculous the scenario sounds. “But this could be the last known specimen of this species.”

Feeling the need to give further justification he adds: “If you don’t have passion, you cannot do this kind of thing.”

Now the skeleton is one of 800 tortoise and turtle artefacts available to research students at the African Chelonian Institute, in Senegal, which Tomas set up in 2009. It’s a vital educational resource in a field where so little is known, but the wildlife lover and accidental conservationist would rather see these precious reptiles alive.

Realising tortoises and turtles were in trouble, Tomas dedicated his life to saving the continent’s species. In the last 26 years, he has established centres for turtle protection and captive breeding programmes and is working with Senegalese authorities to rewild animals intercepted in the illegal pet trade.

With no blueprint to follow, he really is breaking new ground.

“In Africa, conservation is a relatively new concept because animals and resources were always plentiful,” he explains, as we paddle along the waterways of Tocc Tocc Community Reserve at Lac de Guiers in northern Senegal. “But now with population growth the balance is changing.”

Tomas also works with Senegalese authorities to rewild animals intercepted in the illegal pet trade.

An important habitat for manatees and water birds, this wildlife sanctuary is one of Tomas’ proudest achievements. He admits it took 15 hard years to persuade communities to change their habits and protect the wetlands. Now they no longer see turtles as a food source, and improved fishing practices have resulted in less bycatch.

“It didn’t happen overnight. A year later we’d be saying the same thing; it was frustrating but that’s the way it is.”

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Determination has brought Tomas a long way. Born into a family employed in the military and public services, working with wildlife was not an obvious career path. But a love of animals sparked a desire to do something meaningful. “That’s why I say I was not born a conservationist, I became a conservationist,” he says. “It’s a fire you have in the belly that keeps you going, a passion. I always want to move forward.”

Eager to pass on his knowledge and shape a generation “far stronger” than his own, the 49-year-old places great emphasis on education. Many of his facilities, including the Tortoise Village in the Noflaye region of Dakar, are open to both schoolchildren and tourists.

‘Freedom is the most important gift you can give to these animals if you truly love them’ CREDIT: RORY TILFORD

“You cannot conserve something you don’t care about,” he tells me when we visit the sanctuary for sulcatas which attracts up to 10,000 visitors per year. Along with breeding the world’s third largest tortoise, the aim is to release individuals into the wild, although Tomas admits the lengthy and strictly regulated process is bittersweet.

“You spend two years or more monitoring these animals; they become like your baby. Sending them into an uncertain future is something that can make you feel sad.

“But at the same time, they will be happier to be free, and freedom is the most important gift you can give to these animals if you truly love them.”

How to plan your next Safari

To get the food, shelter and safari experience you want, you need to research your trip. Here’s a thorough list of the details you should consider.

By Steve Bailey

A safari vacation in Africa is probably the most organized vacation you’ll ever take. While it is possible to simply fly to a few places — Arusha, Tanzania, or Maun, Botswana — and rent a car to take off into the countryside, few people want to risk being alone on unmarked dirt roads patrolled by hyenas, cheetahs and lions.

No, you use professionals to help you choose an itinerary and arrange transportation. Your travel company will have a driver waiting for you, and from the time you land, you’re in the hands of people who will feed and shelter you and take you amazingly close to fearsome beasts. To get the food, shelter and safari experience you want, you need to research your trip.

Plan on at least two weeks. That should allow for at least three different camps in different areas, for three nights each. Generally, you get an early morning game drive and a late afternoon game drive each day, so two full days in each camp almost guarantees that you’ll see a lot. My wife, Jane, and I went on safaris in January and February in Tanzania, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa. It was the wet season in some places, but it wasn’t particularly rainy. Although the vegetation was lush, we saw elephants, hippos, giraffes and baboons beyond counting. In the drier Serengeti, Kalahari and Sabi Sands, we saw a lifetime’s worth of cheetahs, leopards and lions. We also got to see the Serengeti’s great migration of wildebeests and zebras.


A doctor friend who lived and worked in Malawi until recently says that the best thing you can have on a safari is a generous parent to pay for it. Daily costs per person range from $200 to well over $1,000, and typically include travel, including airplanes, between different camps. It would not include airfare from the United States. Tips are suggested and expected at each camp. A couple should figure on up to $50 per day total for guides, drivers and food service. Tips should be in the local currency and are given upon departure.

My wife and I used African Portfolio, a Connecticut-based company, when we spent six weeks in Africa in 2016. We started planning our trip with a different company, but it ignored our budget concerns and other requests by giving us an itinerary of super-deluxe camps. You also could simply deal directly with a company that operates multiple camps, such as Asilia Africa or Wilderness Safaris. Cultural and educational organizations offer safari packages. African Portfolio got us to the Asilia and Wilderness camps that really intrigued us, as well as to camps operated by other companies. Whoever helps plan your trip will take care of getting you from one remote camp to another, often in small airplanes.

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The Big Five — lions, elephants, leopards, rhinos and Cape buffalo — were the most challenging game animals for hunters on foot in another era. They’re still worthy targets for your camera, but so are zebras, giraffes, exotic antelopes and almost countless kinds of birds. All of these are in Kenya, Tanzania and Botswana. Gorillas are in Rwanda and Uganda.

Lodges, from hostels to luxury hotels, are found near some game-rich areas like the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania and Kruger National Park and the Sabi Sands Game Reserve in South Africa. In the Kalahari Desert and the Serengeti you’ll find tented camps, which are clusters of individual cabinlike tents and one or two large tents for the dining room and staff operations. The individual tents usually have real beds and attached private bathrooms with heated showers and flush toilets. There are also mobile camps, which move to follow game, especially the migration in the Serengeti. All your meals will be at the camp. Most camps supply the usual toiletries as well as sunscreen and insect repellent.

Some safari agencies will hook you up with a guide who will go with you from camp to camp. We had the same guide for two camps and he relied on radio contact with other guides to find game. Elsewhere we had guides supplied by the camps. All knew their areas and the wildlife. With camp guides, you can pay extra to have your own vehicle, or you can share a vehicle with other guests. Do the latter. Your fellow riders are likely to enrich the experience with their knowledge and camaraderie. And listen when the guide in your open-air vehicle tells you not to stand or move. There’s nothing but air between you and that hyena.


You will need fast-drying nylon clothes. Your luggage may be limited to a small duffel bag. Camps generally provide laundry service, usually washed by hand and dried in the sun. Guests may be expected to wash their own underwear. You don’t need an all-beige wardrobe. Most of the animals can hardly distinguish colors, but you should avoid white because it attracts attention. Black and other dark colors attract tsetse flies. Popular safari areas can be chilly mornings and late afternoons and very hot at midday, so dress in layers (and wear a hat).

Steve Bailey is a former travel editor at The New York Times who now runs the travel blog,

Movie review: Charlie’s Angels – ramshackle action reboot goes at half throttle

Rating: 3 out of 5.

There’s intermittent fun to be had in this throwaway relaunch of the female secret agent franchise but the party is cut short by incoherent action and a clunky script.

Back in 2000, the glossy relaunch of Charlie’s Angels felt like a genuine pop culture event. The central casting of Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore and Lucy Liu, all at the height of their fame, was an impressively inspired get. The accompanying lead single from Destiny’s Child was not only a smash hit but a deserved one.

The gaudy aesthetic and post-Matrix bullet time action were laughable but also undeniably of the moment. It was the most 2000 film released in 2000, and at the time it was impossible to avoid – a slick, pre-packaged blockbuster received with as much enthusiasm as it was made. Almost 20 years, one sequel and one failed TV series later, the franchise is back, but all that buzz has been replaced with something else: deafening silence.

The sub-par marketing campaign and sub-sub-par lead track from Miley Cyrus, Ariana Grande and Lana Del Rey haven’t landed with much of an impact, while the new trio (one recognisable star and two question marks) don’t bring with them the same curiosity factor as their noughties foremothers. Tracking for an opening of less than $15m, compared with the 2000 iteration’s $40m without inflation, there seems to be a sense of apathy, or even worse, unawareness from audiences for the latest refresh, easily dismissed as an inevitable rather than necessary product. It might sound like faint praise to say Charlie’s Angels 2019 is slightly better than expected, but in another year of ill-conceived reboots, it’s a depressingly low bar.

What’s striking, and refreshing, about the latest version is that it’s written and directed by a woman, an attempted course correct for a franchise that’s typically been associated with a rather leery male gaze. It’s the first screenplay and second film as director for Elizabeth Banks, a predominantly comic actor who’s edged her way deeper into Hollywood by moving further behind the scenes.

It also boasts a story credit from the Pulitzer prize-winning playwright David Auburn, proof of which I would dare anyone to recognise, given how scrappy the narrative feels, thrashing around carelessly from country to country, set piece to set piece.

The plot brings together three new angels, two of whom are already embedded within the Townsend agency and one of whom is an unlikely recruit. There’s Sabina (Kristen Stewart), whose quippy nature irks the more serious-minded Jane (British newcomer Ella Balinska), and both are protecting whistleblower Elena (Aladdin’s Naomi Scott), who fears for the dangers attached to a new power source her company is developing. After a meeting goes sour, the three are on the run along with their Bosley (Banks), or in this universe one of many Bosleys (who also include Patrick Stewart, Djimon Hounsou and, er, Michael Strahan, because … sure) and they must work together to find a way to save the world … in style.

It’s an initial relief to find that Banks hasn’t decided to go the way of so many reboots and bring us a grounded, gritty take on featherlight material, and it’s her awareness of the inherent silliness of the franchise that proves to be one of the film’s saving graces. It’s never taken too seriously, and thus is hard to dislike, a disposable film aware of its own disposability. But there’s enough that proves to be entertaining to make one wish it was just that bit better. Key to the film’s formula is a balancing act between action and comedy, as in previous incarnations, and somehow Banks manages to fall short on both. The script is a polish or two away from really flying, with so many one-liners tanking, and the dynamic between the three women never truly sparks in the way one would hope. The action is similarly underwhelming and often incoherently edited, whether it’s a fight scene or a car chase, and when the laughs and stunts are paired, there’s a shortage of fizz, like a glass of champagne that’s been left out too long.

Kristen Stewart, Ella Balinska and Naomi Scott. Photograph: Sony Pictures

The actors are game, though, and while post-Twilight Stewart has often struggled to juggle bigger roles with her mostly exceptional work on the indie outskirts (she made for a dry, disengaged Snow White), she’s more comfortable here, having fun as the comedy support, trying her darnedest to add humour to a script that’s sorely lacking. Her character is allegedly queer, although all we get is a brief look to confirm it, another much-hyped yet rather damp attempt to provide multiplex visibility for the LGBT community. Newcomer Balinska and Scott are solid enough, bringing energy to less fleshed-out characters, while Stewart has some fun chewing scenery around them.

There are mixed attempts from Banks to try to modernise the gender politics. While a sharper awareness of how men underestimate the skills and physical competency of women is nicely heightened and the trio are made to be sexy without being turned into sex objects, there are other flourishes that don’t work as well. After the cold open, Banks inserts a clumsy, cheap-looking montage of random girls and young women before the film’s title, which feels more like a deodorant ad than the start of a mainstream movie, while the sisterhood and intense bond between the three angels feels baseless and lacking in texture. It makes the decision to almost entirely eradicate love interests in place of female friendship better conceptually than on screen.

It’s forgettable on reflection, but pacey in the moment, proving to be far less wretched a watch than so many other creatively bankrupt IP resurrections of late. It’s better than it could have been while also not being quite good enough to warrant any further instalments.

  • Charlie’s Angels is released in the US on 15 November and in the UK on 29 November

Movie review: Gemini Man – Will Smith v Will Smith leaves audience in a coma

Rating: 2 out of 5.

The digital de-ageing gimmick adds little sprightliness to Ang Lee’s humourless thriller about a government agent on the run.

Digital youthification and deepfakery is the new frontier in studio movies, taking regular live-action films into a deeper uncanny valley. Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman features a young-looking Robert De Niro and now comes this very odd, dodgily acted, semi-intentionally bizarre action-thriller directed by Ang Lee and written by David Benioff, Billy Ray and Darren Lemke. It stars Will Smith as Brogan, a special-forces assassin who discovers his corrupt government paymasters are harbouring a secret and subsequently finds there is a new and worryingly familiar-looking young assassin in town. It’s a youngster who has, to coin a phrase, started making trouble in the neighbourhood.

This eerily recognisable young dude with the jarhead hair and lovable jug ears has been sent to take Brogan out – it’s himself, aged 23, a digitally rejuvenated Will Smith. This cloned version of Brogan was secretly created by his creepy boss Varris (Clive Owen) as part of Varris’s ethically suspect “Gemini project”, a boys-from-Brazil-type plan to create biotech copies of the very best warriors.

Joining forces with tough agent Danny (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and plucky pal Baron (Benedict Wong), Brogan hits back against this techno-Freudian nightmare, travelling to Georgia, Colombia and Hungary – because Baron has somehow been able to borrow a Gulfstream jet to fly them everywhere. But worrying about the plausibility of that jet is beside the point when you’ve got Young Will Smith™️ running around the place.

The digitally de-wrinkled Smith isn’t great news for the career of Jaden Smith (the real-world son of Will) because this pseudo-young Will Smith is pretty realistic, in fact sort of on a par with the real thing – and the older Smith meets the digital youngster half way by being a bit more wooden than usual. So we could be in for Will Smith action movies for the next thousand years.

The technical effect of the film is strange. As with his last film, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ang Lee is shooting in high frame-rate, which creates a new pin-sharp clarity but at the expense of making the film look like video – or like a celluloid movie on a plasma TV when you haven’t de-activated motion smoothing. It’s not a taste I want to acquire.

Some of the fight scenes are great, and there’s a rousing confrontation between Smiths young and old, involving some nifty leaping from roof to roof that reminded me of Lee’s cracking early film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The juxtaposition of the real and digital faces gives the initial motorbike action scenes an interesting Grand Theft Auto effect. But the rest of the film is a very hard slog, with Smith in permanent danger of being upstaged by a handful of pixels, and Winstead and Wong sporting the slightly bemused-neutral expression of people having to react to a green screen – or perhaps that is the response Smith naturally elicits from his co-stars these days. And this solemn film never really cottons on to something that could have made it fly: the comic possibilities.

The digital novelty is striking for the first 10 minutes, silly for the next 10 minutes, and by the end of the movie you’re pining for the analogue values of script and direction. A wittier, smarter riff on everything could have saved this and Smith can play lighter material. Gemini Man has been born under an unfortunate sign.

  • Gemini Man is out in the UK and Australia on 10 October, and in the US on 11 October.
Daniel Craig, Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan in Knives Out. Photograph: Claire Folger

Movie review: Knives Out – Rian Johnson crafts a devious meta whodunnit

The Last Jedi director lets loose with a wickedly entertaining Agatha Christie homage featuring a star-packed cast.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
Daniel Craig, Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan in Knives Out. Photograph: Claire Folger
Daniel Craig, Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan in Knives Out. Photograph: Claire Folger

Taking a brief well-earned break from the creative restrictions of the Star Wars universe, Rian Johnson has treated us to a wonderfully devious Agatha Christie homage, a freeing exercise that shows just how much he can achieve without Lucasfilm breathing down his neck. The Last Jedi director (and soon to be creator of an all-new Star Wars trilogy) is a self-confessed fan of the mystery author and has managed to concoct a contemporary whodunnit that both respects and revises the subgenre. In other words, with Knives Out, he’s killed it.

The setup is one we all know: the gothic house in the middle of the countryside, the rich family with a pile of bitter grudges and, most importantly, the dead patriarch with a fortune to leave behind. But Johnson knows that we know this all too well and knows we know he knows this too so knows he has to work that much harder to outfox us by knowing more than we think we might know. His film is a delicious challenge to well-trained armchair detectives and there’s a dizzying joy in watching him and his cast play with the rules, leaving us in the dark to figure out where it’s all going. It’s unexpected in ways that it would be cruel for me to spoil so I’ll keep things intentionally vague.

The body is that of Harlan Thrombrey (Christopher Plummer), a wildly successful mystery writer whose 85th birthday party proves to be his last. His throat has been slashed in what authorities are deeming a suicide because as a murder it would be an impossible crime. The evidence doesn’t support the idea of foul play but private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) has been hired by an unknown figure to investigate this very possibility. He conducts a string of interviews with the dysfunctional Thrombrey clan to figure out who might have a motive but quickly discovers it would be easier to figure out who doesn’t.

As is standard with the Christie adaptations that inspired him, Knives Out is stacked with stars but rather than aiming for the biggest names, regardless of fit, Johnson has opted for recognisable yet incisive casting, each actor perfectly matched to their role. There’s Jamie Lee Curtis as the vaingloriously “self-made” daughter with a penchant for a vicious one-liner, Don Johnson as her doltish husband, Chris Evans as her spoilt son, Michael Shannon as her bookish brother and Toni Collette as her Instafamous sister-in-law. Johnson also finds room for Blade Runner 2049’s Ana de Armas as Harlan’s loyal nurse, It’s Jaeden Martell as a Trump-supporting grandson, 13 Reason Why’s Katherine Langford as a Trump-loathing granddaughter and Lakeith Stanfield as the cop working with Craig to figure all of this out. Everyone in the cast is having a ball and it’s especially fun to see actors such as Lee Curtis, Craig, Collette and Evans show off their comic prowess, given their mostly dramatic roles of late. There’s also striking work from rising star de Armas who isn’t allowed quite the same amount of fun as her flashier co-stars but leaves a lasting impression nonetheless.

Working from his own original script, Johnson has much fun pulling the strings as well as the rug from underneath us time and time again. There are reveals that tip the standard structure on its head in ways that prove wickedly disorienting and while there’s meta commentary, he avoids smugness. It’s not the empty, slavish homage it could have been as Johnson knows that simply regurgitating the rules with a wink wouldn’t be enough. There’s genuinely thrilling ingenuity here and while some of his attempts to give the film a contemporary, Trump’s America spin are a little too clunky, other similar touches work so well that you’re willing to forget them.

It’s such a rare pleasure to see a director so in love with a genre without slipping into Tarantinoesque fanboy indulgence, remembering his audience is bigger than himself and also that his film requires both head and heart. He’s next set to return to a galaxy far far away but after watching Knives Out, I wish he’d stay with us for a bit longer.

  • Knives Out is showing at the Toronto film festival and will be released in the US on 27 November and in the UK on 29 November

Living in a poor country means you have bad food choices – here’s what we found

Poor diets are the number one risk factor in the global burden of disease: they account for one in five deaths globally.

In higher income countries sugar, fat and red meat increase the risks of heart disease, diabetes and cancer. These usually kill people later in life. Meanwhile people in lower income countries struggle to access nutrient-dense foods like fruits, vegetables, dairy, eggs, meat and fish. This puts them at risk of wasting, stunting and micro-nutrient deficiencies. These tend to kill people in early childhood, but also result in various nutrition disorders and slower cognitive development.

The decision-making processes that lead to poor dietary choices are undoubtedly complex. Diets are affected by culture and tradition, by nutritional knowledge and the importance people attach to good health. But economic factors like income and relative prices are also important. This is especially true for the poor because their food budgets are just that much tighter.

We wanted to explore this economic aspect of dietary decisions. So we analysed consumer food prices for 657 products in 176 countries surveyed by the World Bank’s International Comparison Program. The aim was to understand the global food system from poorer consumers’ perspective by examining the “relative caloric price” of any given food: how much consumers must fork out for healthy versus unhealthy sources of calories.

Our analysis of these relative caloric prices yielded a striking result. As countries develop, their food systems get better at providing healthier foods cheaply, but they also get better at providing unhealthier foods cheaply. This means that in less developed countries poor people also live in poor food systems. Nutrient-dense foods like eggs, milk, fruits and vegetables can be very expensive in these countries. That makes it harder to diversify away from nutrient-sparse staple foods like rice, corn and bread.

The problem in more developed countries is rather different. Unhealthy calories have simply become a very affordable option. In the United States, for example, calories from soft drinks are just 1.9 times as expensive as staple food calories and require no preparation time.

The fact that relative food prices differ so markedly and so systematically provides a very strong rationale for nutrition-focused food policies. Governments’ food policies prioritise the incomes of farmers and the profits of food producers and retailers. Instead, they should be designing their food policies with consumers’ nutrition and health outcomes as their top priority.

Nutrition transition

Niger is one of the world’s poorest countries. People’s staple foods include rice, bread or corn. Eggs would be a useful nutrient boost as they are dense in high-quality protein and a wide range of micronutrients. This makes them a super food ideal for young children and pregnant mothers especially.

But egg calories in Niger are 23.3 times as expensive as calories from staple foods! In contrast, egg calories in the far wealthier United States are just 1.6 times as expensive as staple food calories. This suggests that even if poorer consumers in Niger want to diversify away from their staple foods, this is economically very hard.

Our findings are consistent with the so-called nutrition transition: as countries develop, diets diversify into more nutritious foods (though sometimes slowly). But they also diversify into unhealthy foods like soft drinks.

So what is it about the global food system and the process of economic development that delivers the wrong price of healthy and unhealthy foods in so many settings?

Part of the answer lies in the foods themselves. Sugar is very dense in the basic calories needed for survival and adequate energy; green leafy vegetables are rich in micronutrients but don’t offer much energy, so they’re expensive in caloric terms. Hence when money is tight, poor consumers find cheap sugar-dense foods very appealing, and food manufacturers see sugars as a very cheap way of getting both flavor and calories into their products.

The perishability of foods is also a hugely important determinant of relative prices. Eggs and fresh milk can’t easily be traded over long distances. Egg production is low in Niger, because poultry production in African countries faces major problems with disease, low technology and poor access to capital.

In principle, Niger could just import cheap eggs from the US but that’s not an option for a highly perishable and fragile food like eggs. On the other hand, countries can import less perishable foods like beans, nuts, milk powder, or frozen meat or fish.

Differences in the costs of healthy and unhealthy calories are therefore partly determined by the nature of the foods themselves, and partly by local productivity levels and whether the food can be cheaply traded. These complexities mean that different strategies are needed for different kinds of foods in different countries.

Potential solutions

Clearly the main food system problem for consumers in poor countries is the high price of healthy foods.

For perishable foods that cannot easily be traded it will be essential to increase investment in agricultural research and development (R&D) to improve productivity of nutrient-dense foods.

For the developing world perhaps the most important multilateral institution for agricultural R&D is the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), which helped produce the Green Revolution super crops in the 1960s and 1970s, such as high-yielding rice, wheat and maize varieties. But the CGIAR hasn’t invested anywhere near as much in nutrient-dense crops and livestock or fish.

This same bias towards staple foods is also true for developing country governments, who all too often remain fixated on the supply of their most basic staples. That needs to change.

For more tradable foods, countries need to review their import policies to ensure they’re not taxing foods that consumers need to eat more of. Not every country needs to be self-sufficient in dairy, for example. Milk powder is super nutritious and very tradable, and can be often be mostly imported from high-productivity exporters like New Zealand and the US.

And for all types of healthy foods, improvements in infrastructure and the broader business environment should also help to improve storage, trade and processing of healthy foods.

The low and often declining cost of unhealthy foods is a much trickier issue to grapple with. Taxes on unhealthy foods may be one solution. But the caloric cheapness of sugars and oils and fats is very striking, and we suspect there might be more traction in nutrition education and supply-side regulations such as food labelling.

A triumph of spectacle over depth ... Game of Thrones. Photograph: Helen Sloan/HBO/game of thrones

Game of Thrones recap: season 8, episode 5 – this is too frustrating

The most violent – and most frustrating – episode ever. Why are the creators destroying the world they once carefully depicted?

A triumph of spectacle over depth ... Game of Thrones. Photograph: Helen Sloan/HBO/game of thrones
A triumph of spectacle over depth … Game of Thrones. Photograph: Helen Sloan/HBO/game of thrones

Spoiler alert: this recap is published after Game of Thrones airs on HBO in the US on Sunday night and on Foxtel in Australia on Monday. Do not read unless you have watched episode five of season eight, which airs in the UK on Sky Atlantic on Monday at 2am and 9pm, and is repeated in Australia on Showcase on Monday at 7.30pm AEST.

‘They say every time a Targaryen is born, the gods toss a coin and the world holds its breath’

I don’t think I have ever been more frustrated by an episode of Game of Thrones.

There was so much that could have worked here, so many emotional pay-offs and beautifully shot scenes – and it was all let down by how little work was put into earning those moments.

In part I’d argue that this is not entirely the fault of this series. Indeed, I have enjoyed many of the individual episodes while hoping that they would somehow coalesce into a coherent whole. Instead, the seeds of destruction were sown in series seven, a meandering mess in which too much time was spent circling various plot points. This in turn created a pacing issue that has ensured that now, with the end in sight, everything feels breathless and rushed.

That was certainly the case with The Bells, which was largely (though not entirely) a triumph of spectacle over depth. Dany embraced her dark side, took note of the Targaryen motto ‘Fire and blood’ and razed King’s Landing to the ground even as the bells for surrender rang out. As a series of images it was undeniably powerful, without ever ringing entirely true.

There are many things about Dany’s transformation into the Queen of Ashes that I can buy: that she’s lost and out of her depth in Westeros, that she’s grieving and desperate and alone without the counsel of those she trusted most, that the razing of one city could be seen as a small price to pay to end the tyranny she so abhors.

The problem is that the writing has given us none of this. Instead, a series of men (Tyrion, Varys, even Jon) have pontificated about whether or not Dany is as mad as her father while the Dragon Queen herself remains silent. It’s as though coming to Westeros has stripped Dany of both agency and character development, just at the time she (and we) needed it most.

Would it have killed the writers, David Benioff and DB Weiss, to give us one scene where the girl raised on the stories of her noble older brother and mad father, who saw in the shape of her younger brother Viserys how ambition could curdle and who has faced down slave owners and raised dragons from a funeral pyre, actually considered what her raw grief and desire for destruction might give birth to?Advertisement

I don’t object to the idea that Dany – who has always had something of a messianic streak – could be more tyrant than saviour. But if that is your endpoint you have to sell it more than one small scene in which the future destroyer of a city offers her loyal general the one thing the love of his life owned, only for him to throw it in the fire.

‘Look at me … do you want to be like me?’

From mother of dragons to mad queen in one scene … Dany in Game of Thrones. Photo: HBO/Helen Sloan

Game of Thrones has always prided itself on the brutal reality of its war scenes and, whatever the issues with this episode – and increasingly it felt as though Benioff and Weiss were doing little more than gleefully destroying the world they once carefully depicted – there’s no denying it worked as a visceral display.

From the early incineration of Varys to the final haunting shot of a dust-covered and bleeding Arya riding out through the charred remnants of what was once the finest city in Westeros, this episode was steeped in blood, guts and gore and determined to remind us that all the ice zombies in the world are nothing next to man’s inhumanity to man.

Yet while that was a powerful point (I particularly loved that the Golden Company turned out to be an irrelevance) there were still problems. A long time ago, Jorah told Dany that the Unsullied were incapable of behaving like the brutal men she so despised. Yet Grey Worm broke the fragile truce between the city watch, murdering a man who had surrendered, and by the end Jon’s Northern army, the Dothraki and the Unsullied were all complicit in the murder and rape that accompanied the sacking of King’s Landing.

Again, it is possible that this is part of a wider point the show’s creators are trying to make – how there is no such thing as a noble cause, how war brutalises all and how a ‘liberating’ army might commit the very atrocities it claims to hate. The trouble is it doesn’t feel as though the recent writing has earned so devastating a moment.

‘Nothing else matters, only us’

Reunited with her love as the Red Keep fell around them … Cersei and Jaime Lannister in Game of Thrones. Photograph: Helen Sloan/HBO

Just when I was about to despair entirely, we were treated to a scene of true power as Jaime and Cersei reconciled even as the Red Keep fell around them.

Again, the writing that got them to this point hasn’t been without issue – the decision to have Jaime and Brienne sleep together last week smacks of the worst kind of fan service, in addition to suggesting that Benioff and Weiss have no concept of the notion that men and women might be friends – but the final scene between the Lannister twins was a small masterpiece, tightly scripted and beautifully acted.

And while I might not agree with the idea that Jaime would throw his hard-earned redemption away for a woman who ordered his death, his statement that “nothing else matters, only us” rang bitterly true as did Cersei’s desperate plea to her brother to save both her and their unborn child.

It also reiterated one of the major themes of this final series: the importance of families, those you make yourself and those you are born with.

Thus Jon’s greatest strength has come from the Stark pack, even if he is seemingly doomed to become the last Targaryen, while Tyrion’s greatest weakness is the love he still bears for his – a love that means he can never walk away no matter how much he should.

Meanwhile, Arya was saved by the father/daughter bond she forged with The Hound, a bond that meant not only could he offer her a way out but that, crucially, she would listen, while Dany was undone by the destruction of her own makeshift family, the deaths of Jorah and Missandei leaving her finally, fatally unmoored.

Additional notes

Not even his gleefully delivered final line could redeem him … Euron Greyjoy. Photograph: Helen Sloan/HBO

I never tire of watching Jon Snow’s patented ‘War is hell and why am I caught up in it?’ face of great astonishment.

• Those who have yearned for Cleganebowl got their wish. I’m not one of them, but I did like Sandor’s ‘just die’ line as well as his sardonic aside about “That’s you, that’s what you’ve always been.”

• Interesting choice to double down on the ‘incest equals true love’ subplot. Not only were Jaime and Cersei positioned as the show’s great romance but it was also suggested that if only Jon had overcome his Northern queasiness and ignored the whole ‘she’s my aunt’ thing then Dany wouldn’t have had to immolate an entire city. Women eh? One minute you’re denying them a kiss, the next they’re instigating the end of the world.

• Nice to have confirmation that some of the Dothraki survived their Charge of the Light Brigade moment.

• In case anyone doubted it, The Bells gave us the proof: even one dragon is too much of an advantage if you’re prepared to wield it without remorse.

• I hope the military tacticians were pleased that the whole ‘Scorpions can’t turn around’ issue was addressed. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether that makes last week’s ambush anything more than another piece of plot manipulation.

• I would quite like it if next week’s episode simply consisted of the Iron Bank of Braavos turning up to collect their debt. There must be a killing to be made in fire insurance claims.

• If anything sums up the later seasons of Game of Thrones it’s the failure to develop Euron properly. Not even his gleefully delivered final line could redeem him.

• I loved Arya’s failure to save the little girl – it was a small moment but a clever one.

• Unless they pull something very special out of the bag next week, the failure to show the scene between Arya, Sansa, Jon and Bran when they discussed Jon’s true parentage feels a huge misstep.

• We said goodbye to many old friends this week, from Qyburn and Sandor to (almost certainly) Jaime and Cersei. However it’s Varys the Spider I’ll miss most of all. Sadly underused in these last seasons, Conleth Hill’s delivery meant that even his briefest scenes were a delight.

Violence count

Those who have yearned for it got their wish … Cleganebowl. Photograph: Courtesy of HBO

Arguably the most violent episode of Game of Thrones yet saw the execution of Varys, the burning of an entire city to the ground including the brutal deaths of several thousand innocent citizens, the destruction of the Iron Fleet, the Golden Company and what remained of Cersei’s army, Qyburn’s casual dispatch by the Mountain who subsequently plunged to his doom with Sandor, the gory death of Euron and the probable ends of Jaime and Cersei, reunited once more at the end of the world.

Random Brit of the week

You might think that the penultimate episode of a long-running series wouldn’t be the time to introduce new characters but hello to Laura Elphinstone aka Line of Duty’s corner-cutting DI Brandyce, who popped up to give a human face to the devastation around.

So what do you think? Did you buy Dany’s transformation from breaker of chains to mad queen? How many times can Jon refuse the Iron Throne before they crown him anyway? And with one episode left, how do you think it will end? As always, all speculation and no spoilers welcome below …

Avengers Endgame: my heart was broken by the fat shaming of Thor

Using a fat person as a punchline is cheap and lazy. So why was everyone in the cinema audience laughing except me?

WARNING: contains spoilers!

At 30 years of age I really should be used seeing how fat bodies are depicted in the media. I should be used to fat bodies being the easy go-to for depicting sad, angry characters. I should be used to the introduction of a fat body to provide some comedic relief. But here I am, the morning after seeing Avengers: Endgame, and I am still shocked, angry and hurt. I am an avid Marvel nerd and while the movie itself was brilliant in many ways, I had seriously conflicted emotions about the physical appearance of Thor.


When we see Thor at the beginning of the film he is his svelte Asgardian god self on the outside but is clearly battling some pretty heavy stuff on the inside. This is a man who has been to war. He is struggling to come to terms with the loss of his brother, to comprehend his inability to defeat Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War and is losing the battle to conquer his demons. Thor has seen war, death and destruction and as a result he has PTSD. I applaud Marvel for highlighting mental illness, particularly as it relates to veterans, but it could have been treated more sensitively.

My issue lies not with Thor’s alcohol consumption or his turning to food for comfort – both are common coping mechanisms; my issue lies with his physical appearance. I thought we were finally past the days of the fat suit. I had hoped that we were past the point in history where we are allowed to poke fun at fat people. I was wrong. Because here we are in Avengers: Endgame and Thor is 30kg heavier and it seems as though everyone in the audience is laughing except me.

While you might laugh, others are sitting around you feeling like they’ve been punched in the gut

I wouldn’t be upset if he had put on weight as a result of his trauma and this was taken more seriously. Fluctuations in weight are normal, particularly when you aren’t taking care of yourself. My problem with Thor’s appearance is that he was clearly a strategic joke placed by Marvel to provide some comedic relief from the overall seriousness of the film.

Thor’s first appearance as a fat person sees him walking into the room shirtless with an extreme focus on his belly and everyone laughs. Look! Thor is fat! Fat, but still jolly, because how could a fat person not be jolly? Sitting in that movie theatre, watching the fatphobic jokes roll through at the expense of a veteran with mental health issues and listening to the subsequent laughter broke my heart.

The jokes made at the expense of the fat person were lazy stereotypes and cheap laughs that really weren’t necessary and while you might sit there and think they’re funny punchlines, others are sitting around you feeling like they’ve been punched in the gut.

The one redeeming quality is that there is no workout montage that shows Thor getting his life back together. The audience goes on a journey with Thor as he battles his inner demons and comes through the other side and I greatly appreciate the fact that this does not include him losing his weight, shaving off his beard and cutting his hair. Thor sits in his misery, grows, works through the darkest depths of his mind and comes out the other end a changed man. He is not the Prince of Asgard that we were originally introduced to, which is only right. One cannot stare death in the face, lose everyone that you love and suddenly bounce back to being the sprightly Adonis that you once were. For this I am grateful.

While I have many issues with the way Thor’s struggles were depicted, he was struggling nonetheless and this needs to be acknowledged. Avengers: Endgame highlights the emotional toll and psychological effects of war, which can be seen in all of the characters not only the one in the fat suit. So while I fully support people going to see Avengers: Endgame, I feel it’s necessary to make a trigger warning: strong themes of fat shaming and PTSD as it relates to war. So make sure to check in with each other and remember to be kind to yourself.

Lacey-Jade Christie is a freelance writer and host of the Australian body positivity podcast The Fat Collective

Cosmic wheels of colour … the cathedral’s rose windows. Photograph: Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images

The Notre Dame-inspired culture – from Matisse to the Muppets

It mesmerised Proust, terrified Homer Simpson and gave us the Hunchback – Guardian critics celebrate Paris’s gothic masterpiece at the heart of the modern imagination. cathedral

Cosmic wheels of colour … the cathedral’s rose windows. Photograph: Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images
Cosmic wheels of colour … the cathedral’s rose windows. Photograph: Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images

By: Oliver WainwrightStuart JeffriesPeter BradshawJonathan JonesFiona MaddocksMichael Coveney and Keza MacDonald

Architecture: ‘Pugin fainted when he saw its beauty’

As Notre Dame Cathedral’s majestic spire tumbled into the inferno on Monday night, live newsreaders around the world decried the tragic loss of this 12th-century marvel. The great timber roof – nicknamed “the forest” for the thousands of trees used in its beams – was gone, the rose windows feared melted, the heart of Paris destroyed forever. What few realised in the heat of the shocking footage was that much of what was ablaze was a 19th-century fantasy. Like most buildings of this age, Notre Dame is the sum of centuries of restorations and reinventions, a muddled patchwork of myth and speculation.

Standing as a sturdy hulk on the banks of the Seine, the great stone pile has never been the most elegant or commanding of the ancient cathedrals, but it became the most famous. Begun in 1163, it was larger than any gothic church before it, employing some of the first flying buttresses to allow taller, thinner walls and larger expanses of glazing – including the spectacular rose windows that projected great cosmic wheels of colour into the luminous interior. “Where would [one] find … such magnificence and perfection, so high, so large, so strong, clothed round about with such a multiple variety of ornaments?” asked John of Jandun, in his 1323 Treatise on the Praises of Paris. Five hundred years later, the gothic revivalist architect Augustus Puginfainted when he first encountered Notre Dame, so overwhelmed was he by its beauty.

Notre Dame c.1900 … enough to make Pugin faint. Photograph: Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images

The only solace one might take from the horrific fire is that it is merely the latest chapter in a long and violent history of destruction and repair. The cathedral was heavily damaged by rioting Huguenots in the 16th century, remodelled by successive kings and roundly plundered during the French Revolution, when the 28 statues of biblical figures on the west façade, mistaken for French kings, were ritually beheaded.

It was Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel Notre-Dame de Paris (translated as The Hunchback of Notre Dame) that brought the cathedral’s plight to widespread attention, raising alarm about the “mutilations, amputations [and] dislocations” of the structure, and making gothic architecture touch the popular imagination in a way it never had before. His writing spurred on calls for a full restoration, eventually undertaken by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who was just 30 when he won the commission with Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus in 1845. Over the next 25 years, he would mould Notre Dame according to his own romantic vision, adding elaborate layers of ornament and decorative statues of entirely his own invention.

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His enormous spire, made of 500 tons of wood and 250 tons of lead, was a far cry from the previous tower (removed in 1786 due to instability), modelled instead on a 19th-century spire in Orléans. Around this great flèche, he concocted a fantastical menagerie of apostles and mythical creatures – most of which appear to have been saved from the flames, having already been removed for restoration.

History hasn’t been kind to Viollet-le-Duc’s work. Victorian architect William Burges called him a “disastrous restorationist”, while Charles Hiatt’s 1902 account of the cathedral’s redecorated interior bemoaned that “the colour confuses our appreciation of the fine lines of the architecture, and it is frequently restless and irritating where it should be most reposeful”. Critic Ian Nairn passed a damning judgment on Notre Dame in the 1960s, calling it “one of the most pessimistic buildings in the world [with] no hope of change, and no glimmer of ultimate purpose,” adding that “Viollet-le-Duc’s musty and self-righteous cackle can be heard all over the building”.

Yet the echoes of this gleeful, overripe cackle are exactly what made Notre Dame so seductive to the imagination of the millions of tourists who flocked here each year – and who will no doubt continue to do so when it is rebuilt, with yet another layer of creative interpretation added to the rich historical collage. Oliver Wainwright

Literature: ‘Proust gazed at it for two hours’

In 1904, Marcel Proust wrote an article for Le Figaro whose title, The Death of Cathedrals, now takes on painful resonance. Proust, who so loved gothic ecclesiastical architecture he would inveigle his beloved chauffeur-lover Alfredo Agostinelli to light up church facades with headlamps so he could study their stones, one evening threw a fur-lined coat over his nightdress so he could spend two hours gazing at Notre Dame’s portal of Saint Anne.

The death Proust was lamenting was not so much sacrifice to flames as the insufferable consequence he inferred from a contemporary governmental plan that allowed cathedrals like Notre Dame to be converted into “museum, concert hall, or casino.” As his biographer Jean-Yves Tadié points out, though agnostic and Jewish, Proust was so fired by the passion inculcated in him for gothic architecture by John Ruskin that he couldn’t bear the thought of Catholic churches being thus repurposed. His great novel, À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, revels in lapidary descriptions of churches, great and small.

Sigmund Freud, another secular Jew and contemporary of Proust’s, was similarly entranced by Notre Dame. The first time he saw it, in 1885, Freud said he had “a sensation I never had before.” Thereafter, between studying with neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot at Salpêtrière Hospital, he returned to Notre Dame “every free afternoon” to be in its presence. “I have never seen anything so movingly serious and sombre,” Freud said.

But Notre Dame has an even more sombre incarnation, one that reeks of death and damnation. In 1866, Baudelaire published Les Épaves (Scraps), a collection of incidental verse including six censored poems from the 1857 edition of Les Fleurs du mal, one of whose poems, Le Joueur généreux, includes the line: “The finest trick of the devil is to persuade you that he does not exist.” Its frontispiece includes a hideous skeleton, described by British Library curator Chris Michaelides as “symbolising the tree of good and evil, in whose feet grow flowers representing the seven deadly sins. Angels and cherubs are flying high above around a medallion of the poet carried away by a chimera.”

The artist of that frontispiece, Félicien Rops, perhaps inspired by Baudelaire, made that devil’s existence sickeningly plain in his 1882 image Satan semant l’ivraie(‘Satan sowing seeds among the wheat’). In it, Michaelides relates, a gigantic Satan is crossing Paris, casting seeds of discord from his right hand. The seeds, misogynistically enough, are women. Worse, his right foot rests on – perhaps even crushes – the twin towers of Notre Dame.

Felicien Rops’ Satan the sower. Photograph: Alamy

But it is Hugo’s Hunchback through which literature bends the knee most eloquently to the cathedral. Hugo wrote it in part to catalyse interest in the gothic building, which had fallen out of fashion in Paris. At one point in the vast novel, the villain, Judge Claude Frollo, directs his visitors to look away from a book on his desk to the massive silhouette of Notre Dame Cathedral. “This will kill that,” he remarks. The idea is that the printing press will destroy the cathedral, that the renaissance will murder religion, silence the eloquence of churches. “Small things overcome great ones,” Frollo says, “the book will kill the building.” For Hugo, Stonehenge, the Parthenon and indeed Notre Dame are “books of stone” pregnant with meaning.

Not that all Notre Dame is as venerable as we might suppose. Eric Hazan, the city’s great historian, wrote in his recent book A Walk Through Paris a passage that seems to have been composed for tourists arriving on the Eurostar. “It is a shame that no one stops to contemplate [the facade of the Gare du Nord],” he writes, “whereas crowds throng in front of the facade of Notre Dame, whose statuary is no older than that of the railway station.” The station’s facade is, Hazan argues, a masterpiece. While the world awaits the rebuilding of Notre Dame then, there are consolations. Stuart Jeffries 

Film: ‘Gene Kelly danced in its shadow’

There are numberless postwar movies set in Paris that use Notre Dame as an establishing shot, embedded as part of the city’s legendary fabric and its furniture, the camera sometimes noticing it just subliminally. Paris is habitually a signifier for the secular world of romance and adventure, so using the cathedral more explicitly is not an obvious choice. Jean-Paul Belmondo reads the paper with Notre Dame in the background in Godard’s Breathless; Leslie Caron and Gene Kelly dance in Notre Dame’s shadow in An American In Paris; Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn walk past it as they talk about murder in Charade.

The most stunning – and now eerily prescient – “movie tourist” use of Notre Dame is Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset in which the reunited lovers Jesse and Céline ponder the cathedral and Céline says: “But you have to think that Notre Dame will be gone one day …”

But of course the most sensational use of Notre Dame is in The Hunchback Of Notre Dame in 1939, based on the Victor Hugo novel (there were two earlier silent versions and many remakes since, including a Disney animation). Charles Laughton is the poignantly lonely and lovelorn Quasimodo, the cathedral’s bellringer who rescues Esmeralda (Maureen O’Hara) from public hanging for witchcraft by swinging down Tarzan-like from one of his bell-ropes and bringing her back to the bell tower for sanctuary. That is: the North Tower, whose ancient oak frame has now been destroyed, and the fate of its four immense bells still uncertain.

Charles Laughton as Quasimodo. Photograph: Ronald Grant

The film breathtakingly reverses the usual movie grammar of Notre Dame; instead of incuriously glimpsing the cathedral on the skyline, we are around and inside it, getting a stunning reverse view of Paris from the tower – that is, the fake medieval Paris built in the San Fernando Valley – as the agonised Quasimodo looks out over the teeming city with all its drama and compares himself to the gargoyles he stands next to. The movie was instantly felt to be a symbol of anti-Nazi defiance.

Later, Paul WS Anderson’s version of Three Musketeers staged a swordfight on the cathedral’s roof, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s whimsical romance Amélie had the heroine’s mother bizarrely killed by a suicide jumping from Notre Dame. During their ominous conversation about Notre Dame in Before Sunset, Jesse and Céline talk about Nazi plans to destroy the city before the Allied advance. In René Clément’s Is Paris Burning?, Orson Welles plays the Swedish consul who dissuades the Nazi governor from anything of the sort — because Notre Dame has to be saved. Peter Bradshaw

TV: ‘Its function has been to scare the crap out of you’

In The Muppet Show in 1981, the show’s opening number featured a blue headed, green haired chap called Mulch performing the role of Quasimodo. He climbed to the bell tower of Notre Dame to sing a love song. “The bells are ringing,” he began gamely, “for me and gargoyle / The birds are singing for 

And then, in unexpected application of the Pygmalion myth, the love of his life, though no looker, unpeeled herself from the parapet and mutated from stone into a singing puppet. “Everybody’s been knowing to a wedding they’re going,” she sang. “And for weeks they’ve been stowing days of labour and toil.” And then some other hideous troll-like figures, sculpted into the parapet below, came to life and sang the chorus.

Though the episode’s special guest was Debbie Harry, her performance of Blondie’s One Way or Another was no match for this reworking of the 1917 standard For Me and My Gal, best known from its outing in the Gene Kelly 1942 film of the same name. Its gag worked through the same hilarious principle of the Rodgers and Hart song Manhattan, with its couplet: “The city’s clamour can never spoil / The dreams of a boy and goil.” Though why French gargoyles sing in New York accents is beyond me.

Television’s relationship with the Parisian landmark has switched vertiginously from comedy to gothic horror. The 2016 Simpsons episode To Courier With Love has the family flying to Paris because Homer has to work as a courier transporting an endangered Amazon blue constrictor snake into the country for reasons too bizarre to get into. One night in Paris, while Bart is fishing in the Seine, and Lisa, you’d suspect, debating philosophy at Les Deux Magots, Homer dons the proverbial existentialist turtleneck and with Marge strolls past the cathedral. Admiring the gargoyles, Homer remarks: “That’s from back when religion knew how to scare the crap out of you”, clearly not knowing that the Muppets had taught us those stones could come to life and sing of love like native New Yorkers.\

Backdrop … Jo, starring Jean Reno, left. Photograph: TF1

And yet, Homer had a point. Notre Dame’s function on television has often been to scare the crap out of its audience or, what is the same thing, provide backdrop for gothic hokum. In Jo, the English language, Paris-set police procedural seriesstarring Jean Reno as the eponymous Joachim Saint-Clair, for instance, one episode starts with a body found beaten and strangled under the Last Judgment portal of Notre Dame. The victim’s ears have been pierced and his face tilted so that his dead eyes are aimed at a figure of an angel blowing his trumpet to wake the dead for the final judgment. Jo’s theory is that the killer has made the the victim symbolically deaf to the angels’ trumpet, suggesting the victim wasn’t worth God’s mercy.

But the future for Notre Dame on television is uncertain. Last year, actor Tom Hollander’s production company enlisted screenwriter Andrew Davies to develop an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel. Hollander himself told Radio Times he wanted to play Quasimodo, though he’d equally be good as Esmeralda. I’ve a hunch (so very sorry) that this adaptation, if it goes ahead, will take on a very different resonance now. Stuart Jeffries

Art: ‘A synthesis of medieval faith and modern fantasy’

To understand the artistic wonder that is Notre Dame you have to accept it as a synthesis of medieval faith and modern fantasy. Viollet-le-Duc crowded the real Notre Dame with grinning, devilish gargoyles just as Hugo populated his fictional one with a deaf bell ringer and his tormentors. This intermixing of a genuine gothic cathedral with the 19th-century dream of what gothic should be has put Notre Dame at the heart of the modern imagination. It’s the artistic embodiment of Paris, the centre of medieval European thought and culture which in the 1800s became the birthplace of modern art.

Medieval magic … gargoyles. Photograph: Murdo Macleod/The Guardian

For at least 300 years before Viollet-le-Duc saved Notre Dame, medieval cathedrals had been shunned. When London’s gothic cathedral St Paul’s was destroyed in the Great Fire of London it was replaced with a trendy new domed edifice by Christopher Wren. No-one this morning is calling for a new Notre Dame to be built by France’s contemporary architectural star Jean Nouvel. That’s because Viollet-le-Duc, who also restored churches across France and the lovely walled city Carcassonne, taught us what makes medieval architecture so magical.

Almost a thousand years after its original creation Notre Dame still speaks to us

It is the human plenitude, the sense of hundreds of anonymous masons working in humble collectivism, and thousands of people across time sharing our awe for what they built, that gives Notre Dame its mystique. A great cathedral is a vast living organism. It’s like being inside a whale, the vaulting a sublime rib cage above you. Unlike a symmetrical classical building a gothic cathedral is not an image of order but living disorder where flying buttresses sprout, mighty columns soar, lofty galleries conceal prayers and plotters.

Viollet-le-Duc loved the monsters at the edge of medieval Christianity, basing the gargoyles and chimeras that cover his restored stonework on works in French museums. His macabre Notre Dame is the birthplace of French modern culture from Baudelaire’s poetry and Rodin’s Gates of Hell to Matisse’s painting of its unmistakable facade in pink morning light. Yet under all its accretions, the heart of Notre Dame is truly medieval. Gothic architecture was born in Paris. Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis, on the French capital’s outskirts, invented this art style in the early 1100s to glorify God in a spectacular new way. To let in sacred light, gothic builders created stained glass windows – and to make space for those, they raised buildings higher than ever before. Flying buttresses and the pointed arch redistributed the structure’s weight so cunningly that huge areas of wall could be replaced with glass. If Notre Dame survives it will be because the flying buttresses did their job.

It was hard to resist the sense of miracle when a photograph of the interior showed Notre Dame’s cross shining through smoke. Another image shows holes in the stone vaulting – but the interior is still the sculpted space the medieval masons made. As it seemed Notre Dame was perishing last night, I was heartbroken. But unless there’s fatal structural damage yet to be revealed, it seems the stones of Paris are holding up. And everything else can be replaced. A cathedral can endure the loss of its stained glass and other fineries, as has happened in Britain where all our cathedrals were vandalised in the Reformation and civil war.

It’s precisely this endurance that makes medieval architecture so special. Almost a thousand years after its original creation Notre Dame still speaks to us. Like cave paintings, it connects us with some primal aesthetic urge. Now our time faces a challenge. Do we still have in us the love, idealism and skill that enabled Viollet-le-Duc and his workers to recreate a gothic masterpiece? If we can reawaken the creativity this building embodies it will be a great moment of artistic renewal for today’s Europe. Jonathan Jones

Music: ‘Vierne died at the famous organ’

Music has been part of Notre Dame’s history since its foundation. Some of the earliest known European composers, working in Paris around 1160 to 1250, wrote music for the liturgy each week even as the great cathedral was being built around them. Collectively these composers are known as the Notre Dame School. Their names are mostly forgotten. Through a 13th-century English scholar, known as Anonymous IV, we know of the two most important: Léonin and Pérotin.

Listen to the music of Pérotin.

Their lasting significance was to write down and develop western musical techniques which had previously only been extemporised. Their polyphonic motets (written for more than once voice) replaced the single line of Gregorian chant, common up to that point. The Magnus Liber Organi (“great organum book”), a collection of Notre Dame works, is one of the greatest single achievements in medieval art, a cornerstone of European music for the next three centuries. Léonin, according to Anonymous IV, made the collection, Pérotin later revised it. The American minimalist Steve Reich paid tribute to Pérotin in his vocal and electronics work Proverb.Advertisement

Another globally important strand of musical life for Notre Dame is the historic organ, central to the flowering of French organ music. The current instrument, spectacular in size and symphonic sound, was originally built by the leading French organ maker Aristide Cavaillé-Coll in 1868. It has survived two world wars and was substantially improved in 1963 and again in 1990. Played on five keyboards and pedals, it has nearly 8,000 stops and an advanced computer system.

Several French composers have held the position of organist at Notre Dame including Louis Vierne who collapsed and died at the organ console after a recital to 3,000 people. The most idiosyncratic, quirky and brilliant in modern times was Pierre Cochereau, improviser, composer, pedagogue and one of the greatest organists of the 20th century. Fiona Maddocks

‘Survived two world wars’ … the organ of Notre Dame Cathedral. Photograph: Stéphane de Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images

Stage: ‘Provided a hit for Celine Dion’

All great cathedrals are spectacular and dramatic, but the specific theatricality of Notre Dame is bound up in the mythology of Victor Hugo’s great novel. Hugo himself was thinking of the opera house soon after publication in 1831 and duly cooperated with composer Louise Bertin on a grand opera in four acts, La Esmeralda.

This flopped, but five more romantic operas soon followed. Apart from the films and television series, there have been countless theatre versions, too, in recent years ranging from Ken Hill’s sparky adaptation for the National Theatre in 1977, through Strathcona Theatre Company’s small-scale touring edition in 2001. One forgotten musical was based on the Disney film, and several ballets have included Roland Petit’s for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1965.

But the main theatrical stab at the story in recent years was the 1998 Notre Dame de Paris, a French Europop concert that provided a hit soundtrack for Céline Dion after it was premiered at the Palais des Congres, a building conceived in an alternative plane to the cathedral’s scale and sublimity.

Our Francophile producer, the late Michael White, presented the show at the Dominion in London in 2000, with Tina Arena and blocks of concrete misrepresenting the cathedral. And it’s this powerfully ingratiating score – by Richard Cocciante – with gloriously banal book and lyrics by Luc Plamondon, that ripped up the Coliseum only a few weeks ago with an acrobatic chorus of Parisian low-life decked out in primary colour satin trews and boleros.

Most critics in 2000 panned the show, no doubt hoping to be right after being, mostly, wrong when Les Misérables (1980 in Paris) opened here in 1985. It was, they said “a load of old bells”, “all bats and no belfry”. Sheridan Morley decried Quasimodo’s disabled backing group who scuttled up and down the cathedral bell tower “in a futile attempt to escape the show”. Frankly, it gave him the hump.

Notre Dame itself really needs no dramatising. It has David’s paintings, stained glass, the magnificent organ and an impasto of ceremonies and coronations that should, God and the restoration willing, run for ever. Michael Coveney

Video games: ‘You can shimmy up its majestic exterior’

In video games, architecture is more than set-dressing. When a player can move through a piece of art, examine it through touch, movement and interaction as well as visually, the composition of virtual spaces and buildings becomes as vital to the experience as code, sound and visual design. Game designers’ art, like architects’, is that of expressing something through a space.\

‘A powerful, intimate sense of deja vu’ … Notre Dame in Assassins Creed. Photograph: Ubisoft

A great many video game creatives show a weakness for the imposing beauty of gothic architecture in their work. Echoes of Notre Dame can be seen in games from eldritch horror Bloodborne to the arch-fantasy World of Warcraft. For Assassin’s Creed Unity, a historical game set during the French Revolution, an environmental artist named Caroline Miousse spent the best part of two years recreating Notre Dame Cathedral in a virtual 18th-century Paris, working from old maps of the city, sketches and photographs. Notre Dame didn’t have its spires at that time, but in the game they are there, a concession to the modern player’s mental image of the iconic building. You can climb right to the top of the cathedral and survey the city below; inside, you can see the paintings that were hanging on the walls 250 years ago. Experiencing the cathedral in-game having seen it in the flesh evokes a powerful, intimate sense of deja vu. You can’t touch its ancient stone in a game, of course – though in real life, you can’t shimmy up the majestic exterior like an 18th-century Spider-Man and view the Paris skyline from its peak.

Few would have foreseen it, but the work that Ubisoft Montréal did in building a virtual Notre Dame may now be of use in rebuilding the real one. It is a reminder that video games, in recreating architectural wonders, now play an important role in their cultural preservation. Keza MacDonald

SOURCE: This article was first published on The Guardian, UK

The Debate: sex, Unwanted pregnancy and women rights in Catholic church

Jenny Tillyard addresses the issue of unwanted pregnancy and a ‘demographic disaster’ in Africa, while Judith A Daniels says the church needs to legitimise women’s much-needed accession to leadership roles

Cherie Blair was right to mention the problem of forced pregnancy among young schoolgirls in Africa (Cherie Blair accused of reinforcing stereotypes about African women, 27 March). She was speaking at a Catholic school, and Catholics are currently struggling with the whole problem of unwanted pregnancy and women’s (and men’s) rights.

In traditional societies in Africa, a girl’s reproductive capacity was “owned” by her birth family, and there were recognised customs to enforce damages for “seduction”, which to some extent protected young girls. These protections have vanished with modernity, and organisations such as Cafod can provide in-depth information about the attrition of girls in school past puberty, which puts a question mark over every attempt at social development (we are talking about girls as young as 11). Of course African leaders, including bishops, would rather not talk about this. But a demographic disaster is unfolding in southern Africa, and silencing talk about it will not make it go away.

Jenny Tillyard

(Lived 30 years in Zimbabwe), Seaford, East Sussex

• As a Catholic, I agree entirely with Tina Beattie (Opinion, 27 March) about the disenfranchisement of women in our church. We are still waiting on the “contentious” possibility of women deacons and, although I abhor that expression “not in my lifetime”, I am beginning to see the reasoning behind it and feel its negative and depressing weight on my shoulders.

I am pleased that Pope Francis acknowledged Lucetta Scaraffia’s dedicated work in the church in regard to our enfranchisement. Now he and the hierarchy need to reach out to women and legitimise their much-needed accession to leadership roles. Until that happens the church will fall behind and below what many Catholic men, women and children justifiably expect from what should be a modern, all-embracing organisation and one that Christ would want as well.

Judith A Daniels

Cobholm, Norfolk

• Join the debate – email

Chaka Khan: at 65, she says she is ‘still looking forward to shit’.

Pop and Black Panthers: the glorious life of Chaka Khan

The self-described ‘alpha chick’ has weathered addiction, dodgy managers and the death of Prince to remain as funky as ever. She describes how she went from gun-toting activist to teetotal vegan.

Chaka Khan: at 65, she says she is ‘still looking forward to shit’.
Chaka Khan: at 65, she says she is ‘still looking forward to shit’. Photo: Renell Medrano

Chaka Khan has a question. “What’s that TV show, where it’s just families sitting down and looking at the TV? Chat Box?” Gogglebox? She claps her hands delightedly. “Gogglebox – oh, I love that! And that quiz programme where the enforcer comes on and it’s like a big black guy, or a big woman.”

Erm, The Chase? With Bradley Walsh? She nods. “So good. I like funny shit.”

It goes without saying that I didn’t expect to end up discussing Bradley Walsh when I arrived to interview Khan, a woman who could call herself the Queen of Funk without much fear of starting an argument. A minute ago, we were talking about her vast influence over modern music, something that is evident from her new album, Hello Happiness, a collaboration with the producers Sarah Ruba and Switch, the latter best known for his work with MIA and Major Lazer. It is audibly the work of people who, as Khan puts it, “made it abundantly clear that they didn’t have to Google me”. Its sound is based on an intricate knowledge of her back catalogue – the vivid funk she recorded with Rufus 40 years ago, the effervescent disco of her early solo albums, the electronic dance-pop of her biggest hits – and given a subtle 21st-century makeover.

Khan was telling me that she was less aware of her influence than she might be, because she doesn’t really listen to music at home, preferring to relax in front of the telly. And now here we are, talking about Gogglebox and The Chase.

It is certainly an unexpected turn of events, but nothing about Khan’s life or career seems straightforward. She was born Yvette Stevens 65 years ago in Hyde Park, a progressive, bohemian, racially mixed “island amid the madness” of 50s and 60s Chicago: “A great city, very rich in terms of the arts, but it’s so racist it’s hard get to the friggin’ arts if you’re black. You have to grow up in a specialised community, which mine was.” Her mother was a strict Catholic, but her father was a beatnik: “My sister and I used to go on his nocturnal excursions by the lake in the park. The weed was thick in the air, the wine bottles were flowing, music was playing – as tight as it was, I had a pretty magical life.”Advertisement

Her father remarried, to a civil rights activist who encouraged Khan to speak at rallies; by the age of 14, she had been recruited by the Black Panthers. “I was a kid, so they really just had me selling the Panther paper on the corner, barefoot in jeans. I was totally against all the sock hops and shit my school had to offer to keep the natives quiet. We used to call them ‘slave gatherings’. So, I had my combat boots on, my green khaki pants. I didn’t feel in danger – it wasn’t like that. We were doing the right thing. However, when a gun came into my hands, a .38 that I hid in my room … I’m telling you, every moment I had that gun it changed me. I felt physically sick. I threw it away into Botany’s Pond by Chicago University, then I felt better. That finished me with the Panthers.”

 Khan in 1975: ‘The thing was to have a white band with a black chick out front.’ Photograph: Len DeLessio/Corbis via Getty Images

Instead, she concentrated on her musical career, singing jingles, performing with a succession of bands in the clubs around Chicago’s Rush Street before landing a gig with a racially mixed funk band called Rufus. “The thing back then was to have a white band with a black chick out front – that was major money, made the club owners interested.” She laughs mordantly. “Another racist phase that passed through Chicago.”

With Khan on vocals, Rufus were an immediate sensation: she had both a hell of a voice and a precocious, raw stage presence. She was 17 years old when they were offered her a record deal, still legally a child. When her mother refused to sign the contract on her behalf, she got married to her boyfriend, lying to her parents that she was pregnant. By the time of their first hit, 1974’s Stevie Wonder-penned Tell Me Something Good, she actually was. “Yeah, everything happened to me like that: bam. And, yeah, it left some scars, created some bad habits. Why wouldn’t it?”

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Despite their success – six gold or platinum albums in five years, 25 hit singles on the US R&B chart – Rufus were a highly combustible band. There were endless line-up changes. There were fistfights in the studio, issues with managers. “I had nothing but rip-off artists, until just lately,” she sighs. The atmosphere wasn’t much helped when the record label started billing the band as Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, or by tension between the band members and Khan’s second husband, Richard Holland. “They didn’t want me to have a husband,” she shrugs. “When the band first went on tour, every night, after a gig, they would all do a walk-through of my room to make sure I was by myself. They didn’t care who it was – no one could come and visit me. They were just very possessive of their little diamond.”

Eventually, Khan struck out on her own, scoring an immediate hit with the Ashford & Simpson-penned I’m Every Woman. She kept making albums with Rufus out of “guilt”, although the results were often spectacular, not least 1979’s superlative Masterjam; ironically, their biggest hit together – 1983’s Ain’t Nobody – came after Khan had left for good. Her solo career was soaring. With the producer Arif Mardin, she made a succession of wonderful albums, on which, as she characteristically puts it, “every song’s a motherfucker”. She was prodigiously, intuitively talented – unable to read music, she would nevertheless arrange her own songs, singing the notes she wanted to the horn and string sections – and remarkably adaptable, throwing out albums of jazz standards alongside collaborations with Rick James. Just as Rufus had transitioned seamlessly from funk to disco, so Khan survived the disco backlash with barely a scratch.

Khan in 1975, when her band Rufus were riding high in the US charts. Photograph: Anwar Hussein/Getty Images

But behind the scenes, Khan’s life was going haywire. She ended up locked in battles with her record label. “Assholes,” she says, flatly. “They didn’t know how to work me, what category to put me in. Hell, they didn’t have a clue. I get it – no category. That means do everything – let’s do it all! But, see, that’s too much work for them. I went in one time, they’d hired another A&R, who told me: ‘We need you to sound like Mary J Blige.’ I said: ‘You motherfuckers need to get Mary J Blige then, and leave me alone.’ That’s when I really decided, ‘I’m done.’”

Relate stories

She struggled with addiction – to cocaine, heroin and alcohol – for most of her adult life. Remarkably, it did not seem to interfere with her career: by her own admission, she was “getting fucked up” throughout her commercial peak. “Very good at compartmentalising,” she nods. “All through the 80s, I knew when to abstain, I really did. I had lines of demarcation in my life, and I practised them. And, also, I was very aware of my health; that was important to me. When I was with the Panthers, my girlfriends and I were all into breaking our own bread, taking our herbs, fasting one week out of every month. So there were certain other habits I got that I never did stop. It was the healthy living that brought me through drugs alive, I’m sure of it. I would get massively fucked-up for a couple of weeks and then I’d take, like, a herbal shut-down where I’d stop and just go on plants. So that helped me a lot.”

It was the healthy living that brought me through drugs alive, I’m sure of itChaka Khan

She says her last bout in rehab – for an addiction to opiate painkillers prescribed after a knee replacement operation – was provoked by the death of Prince in 2016. They were close friends – he wrote her 1984 UK No 1 I Feel For You, and they regularly collaborated. She signed to his NPG label in the late 90s, resulting in the brilliant overlooked album Come 2 My House – although her interactions with him seem to have been as bizarre as everyone else’s. They met when he rang her hotel room in San Francisco, pretending, for reasons best known to himself, to be Sly Stone. “I could have sworn it was Sly; Sly and I were very close. He said: ‘I’m at a studio in Marin County doing this album, do you want to come?’ So I drove for 100 years and get in there and it’s like dark and sterile and very eerie. There’s this little guy with a guitar. I said: ‘Excuse me, where’s Sly?’ and he put his guitar down and said: ‘I’m sorry, that was me.’ ‘Well, who the fuck are you?’ I was truly pissed about this. He told me who he was, I said: ‘OK, nice meeting you, but I’m really pissed now, so goodbye’, and I left.”

She says she had no idea of the extent of the Prince’s own issues with painkillers. “I never, ever got any indication that he was on pills. I knew he was doing certain things, I knew he had a couple of bouts with acid and all that. That’s OK. A one-off here and there, you got the money, you ain’t working. You like acid – go do it. But he was totally against drinking; he’d drink red wine occasionally, not a lot. He starved himself – he wouldn’t eat unless it was this or that; he was very particular. What comes to mind is someone who was very health conscious as opposed to …” Her voice trails off and she shakes her head. “Secrets kill. Secrets kill, and if he hid from me for so many years where he was really at, and I was like his confidante in many ways, you know … It’s hard to keep a secret like that from me. So I learned a lot, you know. I just said: ‘I better go check myself.’ And I’m alive maybe because he’s dead. I went to a doctor and I said, ‘Here’s the deal’, and he told me there are certain pains you’ve just got to live with, that’s part of life.”

 Khan performing in Toronto, Canada, in September 2018. Photograph: Rich Fury/Getty Images for Netflix

These days, she is a teetotal vegan, her only vice the packet of cigarettes on the table in front of her. In recent years she has spent much of her time raising her granddaughter – she won permanent custody after reporting her son and his partner as incapable due to drug addiction – whom she describes as “my best investment”, and whose own lack of musical ambition seems to delight her. “I love it – she’s not interested in my fucking shit. I can’t get her to come to a concert and see me sing all about her – she wouldn’t give a damn. She doesn’t care. She wants to be a doctor. She’s so in the right place.”

And so, Khan says, is she; despite the turbulence of her past, “at 65, I’m still looking forward to shit”, she laughs. Hello Happiness “has put a new spark in my career”. There’s a forthcoming collection of Joni Mitchell covers to think about, as well as her charitable foundation, which works with autistic children and is currently engaged in trying to re-establish the after-school music programme in Minnesota “that Prince went to when he was a kid, where he got a chance to play with older cats all the time. We’re just trying to play forward Prince’s dream – the shit that saved him may save others.”

And she is currently engaged in a battle with the aforementioned assholes at her old label over the rights to her back catalogue. “After 30 years, your shit should automatically return to you, but they’re trying to fight me on that. But not to worry, darling. I’ll be all right. I will be. I’ll be fine.” She lets out a throaty laugh. “You know,” she says, “I’m kind of an alpha chick.”

• Hello Happiness is released on 15 February

SOURCE: The Guardian, UK

Jollof is made of rice, tomatoes and spices

Prince Charles intervenes in Jollof wars

Prince Charles has spoken about the ongoing dispute over whose Jollof rice is best, only to side step the issue of revealing his own preference.

Jollof is made of rice, tomatoes and spices
Jollof is made of rice, tomatoes and spices

Speaking in Nigeria at the end of his West Africa tour, he said:

Quote Message: Having also visited The Gambia and Ghana over the past week, our visit to Nigeria may perhaps provide an invaluable opportunity to compare – if one ever dares do such a thing! – the relative merits of each country’s Jollof rice… however, for fear of sparking a diplomatic incident, I suspect I shall have to let you draw your own conclusions about which country’s Jollof we found to be the most delicious!”

The last high-profile British person to dare to talk about Jollof rice was the chef, Jamie Oliver, who at least seemed to unite West Africans in condemnation of his own recipe.

We suspect that Prince Charles was briefed about the ongoing rivalry over the traditional dish made with rice, tomatoes and spices because he was so careful not to reveal his favourite.

A blue Beetle going nowhere in Soweto

‘After a delicious lunch of brain, liver and lung stew, we drove around – and spotted these guys just hanging out in a car’


Iwent to South Africa with my girlfriend in the autumn of 2016 for a friend’s wedding. We had a six-hour layover in Johannesburg airport before flying back to New York, so we decided to take one last trip before we boarded the plane.

Some friends who lived in Johannesburg said it wasn’t the safest of cities – they told us to do some shopping to kill time. Five hours in a mall sounded awful, so we got chatting to one of the tour guides that hang around the airport and he agreed to take us to Soweto, the township south of the city.

Soweto is vast: more than a million people live there, around a third of the population of Johannesburg. Like most townships in South Africa, the vast majority of residents are black and many are extremely poor. Most homes are assembled from salvaged materials: bricks, scrap metal, that kind of thing. And there’s very little infrastructure connecting it to the city.

Our tour guide was probably in his 40s, a kind, trustworthy and down-to-earth guy. He had grown up in Soweto and was extremely proud of his roots. He navigated the old beaten-up roads expertly, pointing out local landmarks and telling us histories we knew very little about.

Soweto occupies a special place in South African history. Mandela lived there for around 15 years, and it’s where he returned to when he was released from prison on Robben Island. It played an important role in the struggle to end apartheid. We visited Mandela’s house, a tiny ramshackle building with old family heirlooms and artefacts of the struggle. It was an incredible piece of history at the heart of the colourful chaos of the township.

Our guide showed us more than just the tourist sites, though. We insisted he take us for lunch at his favourite local restaurant. We drove to a tiny hole in the wall you’d never see if you weren’t looking for it, almost like a garage. We ate this enormous offal stew – all brains and liver and lung – served with a kind of pureed corn that was a little bit like polenta. It was so delicious.

Just after lunch, I took this. Because we only had a short stint in Soweto, I took most of the series out of the window of the guide’s car. It wasn’t hard to get a great photo, though: the streets are so uneven you can’t pick up any speed. The blue car wasn’t moving – I’m not even sure it worked. These two guys were sitting in it, almost pretending to be driving, or perhaps just hanging out. I thought it was funny, so I took the shot. That’s how I like to do most of my street photography: on gut instinct.

There was something about the colour of the car against the beige houses in the background that summed up the spirit of the place. Soweto residents aren’t rich, but the whole place overflows with colour and life. It’s one of the few places I’ve been that is really creating its own culture: new customs, new fashion, new art. It’s not trying to be anywhere else – it’s its own town, with its own history and its own future.

Soweto is a proud place, and its residents are proud to live there. Driving through the township, you occasionally see flashy sports cars, or beautiful villas. It seems like people stay there even when they’ve made it big. It might not have the amenities of Johannesburg, but its sense of community is pretty unique. People stay because they want to, not because they’re trapped.

This photo was received really well, and it’s now the album cover for a great jazz band. It feels like the world is starting to pay attention to Soweto. It’s starting to inspire musicians and cultures way beyond South Africa.

But this photo wasn’t the only reason that trip was so special to me. A day before this photo was taken, I asked my girlfriend to marry me. She said yes. Travelling around with my new fiancee made Soweto a place I’ll always hold dear.

The rest of the Soweto series can be found on Michele Palazzo’s site.


Michele Palazzo’s CV

Born: Ravenna, Italy, 1968.

Studied: Architecture at the Università Iuav di Venezia, Italy.

Influences: “Luigi GhirriVivian Maier, and New York City.”

High point: “My first solo exhibition in Milan last year.”

Low point: “The times when I don’t have the urge to go out and shoot.”

Top tip: “Go out and shoot. Don’t wait for the perfect camera, use whatever you have, practice and keep going.”

Master a language by learning early

New evidence suggests a drop-off in results after the age of 17.


THOSE who want to learn a foreign language, or want their children to, often feel they are racing against the clock. People seem to get worse at languages as they age. Children often learn their first without any instruction, and can easily become multilingual with the right exposure. But the older people get, the harder it seems to be. Witness the rough edges on the grammar of many immigrants even after many years in their new countries.

Scientists mostly agree that children are better language learners, but do not know why. Some posit biological factors. Is it because young brains have an extreme kind of plasticity? Or, as Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist, argues, an instinct for language-learning specifically, which fades as the brain ages and (in evolutionary terms) is no longer needed? Others think children have special environments and incentives, not more conducive brains. They have a strong motivation to communicate with caregivers and imitate peers, and are not afraid of making mistakes in the way adults are.

Some believe any “critical period” may only apply to the sounds of a foreign tongue. Adults struggle with accents: eight decades after immigrating to America and four after serving as secretary of state, Henry Kissinger still sounds fresh off the boat from Fürth—in what is nevertheless elaborately accurate English. (An alternative explanation, runs a joke about Mr Kissinger, is that he never listens.)

But grammar is different, and some researchers have reckoned that adults, with their greater reasoning powers, are not really at a disadvantage relative to children. One study found that when adults and children are exposed to the same teaching materials for a new language for several months, the adults actually do better. Most such research has had to rely on small numbers of subjects, given the difficulty of recruiting them; it is hard to know how meaningful the results are.

Now a large new study led by Joshua Hartshorne of Boston College (with Mr Pinker and Joshua Tenenbaum as co-authors) has buttressed the critical-period hypothesis. The study ingeniously recruited 670,000 online test-takers by framing the exercise as a quiz that would guess the participants’ native language or dialect. This made it a viral hit. The real point was to test English-learners’ knowledge of tricky bits of grammar, and to see how this correlates with the age at which their studies began.

Do younger beginners do better because their earlier start gave them more learning time, or because they learned faster in early years? It can be hard to tease apart these two questions. But testing a huge amount of data against a number of possible learning curves allowed Mr Hartshorne to do precisely that. Many previous researchers had posited a drop-off at around puberty. The new study found it to be rather later, just after 17.

Despite that later cut-off, learners must begin at around ten if they are to get to near-native fluency. If they start at, say, 14, they cannot accumulate enough expertise in the critical period. Unfortunately, 14 or so is precisely when many students, especially in America, are first introduced to a new language. (Even worse, this is an age when children are acutely sensitive to embarrassment in front of peers.)

Children who start at five don’t do noticeably better than those who start at ten over their lifetimes. But there is still reason to begin in the first years of school, as in Denmark and Sweden. Because mastery takes a long time—perhaps 30 years until improvement ceases—those who begin at five and are obliged to read and write English at university will by then have made much more progress than those who took the plunge at ten, even if their level is roughly the same by 40.

The existence of the critical period is not a reason for anyone 11 or older to give up. Some people remain excellent language students into adulthood. And Mr Hartshorne tested some truly subtle features of grammar that take years to master. A language learned even to a lower level can still be extraordinarily useful at work or enjoyable while travelling.

But for policymakers, the implication is clear. Earlier is better. Students outside the English-speaking world will eventually face English in the classroom or at work: they’ll have a better shot if they start younger. As for the Anglophone countries, getting foreign languages into the tender years is a hard sell. Many bureaucrats can hardly see past reading and maths. That is a mistake for many reasons. This study demonstrates one of them.

This article appeared on The Economist website with the title: “To master a language, start learning it early”.

‘I’m a white, straight, middle-class male – I take things for granted’ – Will Poulter

The actor’s latest role is in The Little Stranger, a film that twitches with tension about class – which resonates with his own upbringing.


No one needs to teach Will Poulter anything about checking his privilege. The career choices of this 25-year-old show an actor drawn to films with a social conscience. In scarcely more than a decade, he has left behind CGI blockbusters (one Narnia and two Maze Runners) and broad comedy (We’re the Millers, in which he snogged Jennifer Aniston and Emma Roberts, and briefly sported a swollen prosthetic testicle). Instead, he has moved on to more serious, searching projects: the below-the-breadline chamber-piece Glassland, Kathryn Bigelow’s race riots drama Detroit and now The Little Stranger, a ghost story that twitches with class tension.

In person, too, Poulter is constantly checking, unpicking, interrogating and rechecking himself. Five times during the course of our two conversations – first in a Dublin hotel bar a few hours before the premiere of The Little Stranger, then the following day on the phone – he describes himself with an air of contrition as a “white, straight, middle-class male”, careful to the point of fastidiousness that nothing should be omitted or misunderstood.

So cards on the table: he was a pupil at the Harrodian School in west London (current fees: upwards of £6,000 per term), whose alumni also include Robert Pattinson, Jack Whitehall, Tom Sturridge and George Mackay. “What my privilege has meant is that I haven’t experienced the same levels of exclusion and inaccessibility that might come with being working class,” says Poulter, who is tall and trim, with a serious expression, narrowed eyes and a courteous, meet-the-parents air.

‘He’s almost jumped forward in time to become an old man’ … Poulter as Roderick in The Little Stranger. Photo: Nicola Dove/Pathe

“I’ve certainly felt guilty about that. But guilt for those less privileged and those who experience the prejudice from which I’m protected isn’t enough. Acknowledgement is the first step in hopefully using your privilege to realise a more equitable society. I’m trying to find ways to deconstruct that hierarchy as opposed to just enjoying the privilege and acknowledging the guilt.”

Such as? “I’m keen to develop as an activist and involve myself in charities and organisations. And with my acting, it’s important that the projects I do have a sociopolitical impact. I try to be conscious about the message. As a white, straight, middle-class male, I’m aware of things I take for granted.”

Blockbuster … Poulter in The Maze Runner. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

I wonder how it felt to hear Daniel Mays observe, in 2016, that the industry was “awash” with privately educated actors, or to read the Sutton report’s findings that the same group takes a disproportionately high share of awards (42% of British Bafta winners and 67% of British Oscar winners). Is it like being under attack? “No, no. Not at all. I’ve undoubtedly benefited from my middle-class environment. I hold my hands up to that. And I know that unless we try to make pathways into the industry more open and accessible, then we can’t expect it to reflect society.”

This is all pertinent to The Little Stranger, in which a doctor (played by Domhnall Gleeson) in late-1940s Warwickshire is summoned to the country pile he has coveted since childhood. There he finds Roderick, played by Poulter, who suffered severe burns to his face and leg during the war and has grown old prematurely.

Broad comedy … Poulter with, from left, Emma Roberts, Jennifer Aniston and Jason Sudeikis in We’re the Millers. Photo: Allstar/Warner Bros

“He’s this boy whose youth has been cut short by his injuries so that he’s almost jumped forward in time to become an old man. He’s confined to the house, he’s hitting the bottle, living with all these regrets. There’s this emotional decay, which is a strange reflection of what’s happening to the house. He feels intrinsically tied to the state of the home and he is trying, like a lot of the landed gentry, to take pride in its status, just as he does in his own. But there are these parallels of degradation.”

Poulter’s distinctive facial features serve the part well. Though he is clearly young, there’s an agelessness to him, an ability to seem both juvenile and jaded. Partly it’s those windscreen-wiper eyebrows, which sit at a permanent 30-degree angle and are capable of lending devious or calculating inflections to his soft face. In Detroit, where he played the ringleader of a group of racist cops torturing and murdering African Americans with impunity, it was disturbing to see so much savagery emanating from someone barely out of the playpen. His was a performance in the tradition of cinema’s great baby-faced monsters: Richard Attenborough in Brighton Rock, David Bennent in The Tin Drum, Cagney in everything.

Small wonder he was first choice to play Pennywise the Clown in It before that project lost its original director, Cary Fukunaga. Or that in his mid-teens, he was the standout star of the Edinburgh fringe hit School of Comedy, later adapted into an E4 series, in which child performers delivered blatantly adult material dressed as grownups. It was a kind of Bugsy Malone of sketch shows. Poulter’s most memorable character was a cocky white van man hollering incomprehensible remarks at passing women.

‘It was mad, man’ … Poulter, left, with Bill Milner in Son of Rambow. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

By that point he had already made his film debut at the age of 13 – as a soft-centred hard-nut in Son of Rambow, the coming-of-age comedy about a pair of schoolboys who make their own camcorder version of First Blood. “That was mad, man,” he says. “I don’t know if I would be so in love with what I do if I hadn’t had such an amazing first experience.”

He was already passionate about acting, which provided an alternative to the sort of academic demands made difficult by his dyslexia and dyspraxia, as well as a reprieve from some unkindness among his peers. “I had experiences of bullying. I used drama as an antidote to some of the less enjoyable aspects of social life at school.”

Garth Jennings, the writer and director of Son of Rambow, remembers Poulter as a precocious talent. “I never did more than a couple of takes for anything,” he says. “It wasn’t just that Will got it – he also understood what the rhythm of the line was, and that it would be funnier if you paused first. His instincts were ridiculously good. I spent most of my days shaking my head in disbelief, just going, ‘Yep. That was it, sunshine. That was it.’”

‘The hardest thing I’ll ever do’ … The Revenant. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Poulter’s career since then has not been without its taxing moments. Was it true, as rumour has it, that eight months playing a trapper on The Revenantnearly broke him? He gives a rueful laugh. “Um. I’m always hesitant to complain too much as an actor, but I’ll say it was physically and emotionally probably the hardest thing I’ll ever do. I just can’t imagine a tougher shoot. The conditions were so inhospitable. We were up the side of a mountain in temperatures I didn’t know existed. I find acting enough of a challenge at room temperature.”

Jennings met up with Poulter when the actor was on a break from that movie. “Will was staying in the accent so he didn’t lose it when he went back. He was really locked in. Watching him in the film, you think, ‘Oh yeah, there you go – DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Will.’ He just fits right in.”

Lenny Abrahamson, the director of The Little Stranger, thinks Poulter has even bigger things ahead. “He’s viewed in the industry as this incredibly exciting talent,” he says. “You look at him and think, ‘Is there a Bond in Will at some point? Maybe in 10 years?’ I could see that. I could imagine him being a very dark Bond indeed.”

 The Little Stranger is out now.

Cover photo: Privileged background … Will Poulter. Photograph: Michael Buckner/Deadline/Rex/Shutterstock

Why are voices of trans-inclusive feminists being ignored?

The desire to frame the debate over trans issues as being between feminists and trans activists is wrong, argues Vic Valentine, a trans activist

This is part of a two-week discussion on trans issues. Vic Valentine’s previous article is here. All other essays in the series are here.

In Charlie Kiss’s article it was great to see him push back at the idea that trans people uphold gender stereotypes. Unfortunately it would seem that not all contributors to last week’s discussion realise that this is the case. I was disappointed to read in Sarah Ditum’s essay that trans people somehow reinforce the gender stereotypes that she feels feminists are seeking to free us from.

Perhaps Ms Ditum has just not spent a lot of time with many trans people yet, but it is plainly wrong to suggest that we adhere to rigid gender norms any more so than the majority of the population that are not trans. This would be easy to see at any big trans community event, such as the first ever Trans Pride Scotland held in Edinburgh on March 31st this year or this film of Trans Pride Brighton. Trans people are very diverse in our expressions of gender. Rather than believing that toy and clothing preferences define a young person’s gender identity, trans activists work extremely hard to challenge gender stereotypes. Clothes and toys are nothing more than clothes and toys.

Trans people are harmed by society’s expectations about how men and women should look, and the media’s insistence on focusing on hyper-masculine or, more commonly, hyper-feminine expressions of gender. Behind the over-simplified images and media stories is a community that is much more colourful than the simple pink and blue divide that wider society tries to force us into.

But perhaps this is a reason for all feminists, both trans and not, to unite to challenge gender stereotypes together, rather than assigning blame for the issue to a marginalised group that is just trying to navigate the same difficulties as everyone else.

It was also interesting to read James Kirkupask if he has the right to speak about the topic, given its current framing as an issue of women v trans people, of which he is neither. (As an aside, I fundamentally disagree that this is a women v trans rights issue. Many feminists and women’s organisations support trans inclusion and reform of the Gender Recognition Act. The twitter hashtag #LwiththeT and the Scottish women’s sector’s GRA support statement are two examples of this.)

While Mr Kirkup concludes that he can speak about the topic, and I would agree with this, it is interesting that he decides to dismiss out of hand in his article the views of “the CEO of Stonewall” as simply pandering to a dominant trans ideology. This is despite the fact that Ruth Hunt is a lesbian, and a woman (and not a trans woman): two groups he claims to be so desperately trying to raise the voices of. It would appear that he is happy to promote the voices of lesbians if they agree with him and oppose trans rights, but dismisses the voices of the large majority of lesbians who are allies of trans equality. The desire of some to frame trans rights as against women’s rights means that the voices in danger of being ignored are those of trans-inclusive feminist women.

This post first appeared on The Economist with the title: Trans-inclusive feminist voices are being ignored.

Why does Islam prohibit images of Muhammad

Why Islam opposes the depiction of its prophet


LOOK upwards in the magnificent place of worship in Istanbul now known as the Hagia Sophia Museum, and you will see two different ways of approaching the divine, reflecting different phases in the building’s history.

There are Christian mosaics, among the finest ever made, of Jesus Christ, his mother and other holy figures; and there is swirling Islamic calligraphy, which reflects the idea that God speaks to man through language, whether spoken or written, rather than through pictures or anything physical.

For most of its history, Islam has had a deep aversion to the lifelike portrayal of animate beings, especially human beings, and above all to the representation of Muhammad, the messenger of God—or indeed any of the preceding prophets, such as Nuh (Noah) or Isa (Jesus). For an artist, trying to depict the Deity could be more impious only than drawing Muhammad. Why?

Such beliefs are rooted in Islam’s horror of idolatry, and generally of anything that could come between man and God, or compromise the uniqueness and indivisibility of God. The Koran does not specifically condemn representative art, but it has a lot to say about paganism and idolatry; and Islam is correspondingly wary of anything that could become an idol or detract from the worship of God alone.

The text most often cited in defence of the ban on representation is a hadith, one of the vast lore of sayings about the deeds and words of Muhammad. He is reported to have spoken harshly to a man who made his living through art. “Whoever makes a picture will be punished by Allah till he puts life in it, and he will never be able to do that.” This is taken to mean that for a human, to try “making” a new being is usurping God’s role—and is in any case doomed to fail.

The belief is most strongly held by the Sunnis, who form the great majority of the world’s Muslims, especially the more puritanical and zealous groups such as the Wahhabis, who dominate Saudi Arabia. Shia Islam is much more open to the depiction of human beings, up to and including Muhammad himself.

This difference fuels the zeal of violent Sunni groups like Islamic State, who have destroyed Shia shrines and images, claiming in doing so to be purifying their religion of idolatrous accretions. By contrast the leading figure among the Shias of Iraq, Ayatollah Sistani, has said the depiction even of Muhammad is acceptable, as long as it is done with proper reverence.

To illustrate that the ban on depiction has not been absolute, it is often pointed out that the portrayal of human figures, including Muhammad, was a central feature of Persian miniatures, under both Sunni and Shia rulers. In more modern times, the theological ban on human depiction has been challenged in many Muslim countries by the ubiquity of human images in films, on television and in political propaganda posters.

In Arab countries, ingenious compromises between depiction and non-depiction are sometimes found; on road signs, for example, a headless human figure will show pedestrians where to walk. At a slightly higher theological level, it is sometimes asserted (in the course of Christian—Muslim debates, for example) that Muhammad’s aversion to images had exceptions.

According to one version of his life, he went into the Ka’aba—the original place of worship in Mecca—and found it full of idols, which he destroyed. But there were two images which he allowed to remain, albeit hidden from public view: those of Jesus and Mary.

This story apeared on The Economist Website with the title: Why Islam prohibits images of Muhammad.

Cover photo: The magnificent place of worship in Istanbul now known as the Hagia Sophia Museum, and you will see two different ways of approaching the divine, reflecting different phases in the building’s history.

There’s an elusive L in LGBT: where to find the best lesbian films online

Women are not well served in LGBT cinema but two niche networks are attempting to redress the balance.


It has been said a lot recently, sometimes in this very column, that we are living in something of a golden age for LGBT film-making, as films from Moonlight to Call Me By Your Name to Love, Simon enjoy unprecedented levels of mainstream acclaim and exposure. But it’s hard not to note, when it comes to the movies, that the “G” rather disproportionately dwarfs the initialism’s other letters. Female-focused queer releases such as Carol or this week’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post remain a minority within a minority cinema; the patriarchy is a hard institution to shake.

Naturally, it’s an imbalance that extends to the streaming world too, as LGBT-oriented streaming services cater more generously for a male gaze than a female one. That includes such outlets as the expressly gay-focused Dekkoo, which mixes worthwhile classics and international indies from the festival circuit – seek out the lovely, heartsore German marital drama Paths, for example – with ropier softcore fare. A sparklier platform Revry, launched two years ago, aims for greater queer inclusivity – it houses a lot of drag-related content, in particular – but still winds up giving women shorter shrift.

So it’s not surprising that a couple of attempts have been made at launching a lesbian-specific streaming service, where gay women needn’t look to the margins to see their own stories on screen. None has been comprehensive, however. A few years back, the austerely named Section II launched, and hopeful claims were made for it as “the lesbian Netflix”, though anyone approaching it as such may be a bit disappointed. Its film section looks promising, with a menu boasting such tasty offerings as Dee Rees’s Pariahand Céline Sciamma’s Tomboy, but a lack of maintenance and/or budget has led to a lot of dead links or teasing recommendations to other platforms.

Clearly original content has been easier to produce and retain. Section II houses several appealingly low-key films, web series and one-offs, including a ribald comedy special with standup Julie Goldman, and Brides to Be, a romantic mystery ambitiously conceived on a shoestring.

More recently, a lesbian-directed subscription service, Tello Films, has taken the lead in that regard, assembling a substantial collection of original reality shows and drama web series. One of them, the salty, spiky Secs and Execs,recently received an Emmy nomination in the short-form field. With a spry ensemble headed by Sandra Bernhard, it covers workplace tensions at a women’s sportswear company from both ends of the power ladder. Tello’s film selection is anaemic if pleasingly international in scope, including such otherwise little-exposed items as the South African apartheid-era love story The World Unseen.

It’s a service evidently laying foundations for bigger things. Perhaps the market may yet provide more comprehensive viewing hubs for the “L” quadrant, or even a more alphabetically all-encompassing streaming service for the queer community at large. (Niche networks are all well and good, but as monthly subscription fees pile up, larger, more diverse libraries make economic sense.) Netflix may do a better job than most of presenting and identifying content of LGBT interest to viewers, but true representation in the streaming world is still very much at the experimenting stage.

New to streaming and DVD this week

Mariana Nunes in the challenging but sensually overwhelming Zama.

Zama (Drakes Avenue, 15)
Elusive Argentinian Lucrecia Martel continues to prove herself one of the most madly brilliant film-makers alive with this challenging but sensually overwhelming post-colonial fever dream (right).

A Star Is Born (Warner Bros, 15)
Bradley Cooper’s terrific revival of this Hollywood chestnut is a month away, making this restored release of its brashest, loopiest, Streisand-est incarnation perfectly timed.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower (Altitude, PG)
The inaugural release from Studio Ponoc, the new Japanese animation studio founded by Studio Ghibli refugees, captures some of the old magic with this dizzy fairytale.

Cold Water (Sony, 15)
One of the Criterion Collection’s most welcome recent coups, a gleaming restoration of Olivier Assayas’s exquisite, autobiographical, long-unavailable Parisian coming-of-age vision.

Racer and the Jailbird (Thunderbird, 15)
The old-school B-movie plot is irrelevant hokum; it’s a basic framework over which to drape the gorgeous, sinuous star chemistry of Matthias Schoenaerts and Adèle Exarchopoulos.

Cover photo: Dee Rees’s Pariah (2011), with Adepero Oduye, streaming now on Section II. Photo: Chicken And Egg/Mbk/Northstar/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Photo: Egypt State Information Service

300 Cleopatra era artifacts displayed for first time at Egyptian museum

The Egyptian Museum in downtown Cairo is hosting a temporary exhibition of 300 artifacts from the era of Queen Cleopatra.

Photo: Egypt State Information Service
Photo: Egypt State Information Service

The display’s inauguration on Wednesday 18/4/2018 was attended by Minister of Antiquities Khaled al-Anany.

The antiquities were excavated by a Dominican archaeological mission who has been operating in Egypt for about 10 years in the Taposiris Magna area in Alexandria.

Anany hailed the exhibition as “unprecedented and distinguished”.

One of the most important pieces of the exhibition is a unique painting inscribed with hieroglyphic and demotic writing, reminiscent of the gifts given by Ptolemy the Fifth to the priests of the Isis Temple, said the Director General of the Egyptian Museum Sabah Abdel Razek.

Head of the Dominican mission Kathleen Martinez said Taposiris Magna was a vital location for Queen Cleopatra as it included statues of goddess Isis. Coins and paintings with many inscriptions dating back to the era of Cleopatra were found in the site, she said.

The exhibition also includes some distinctive pieces, including a bronze piece in the form of a fly that was dedicated by the king of Ptolemy to a soldier due to his bravery and dedication in battle, and a number of bronze coins inscribed with Isis on the front, and Cleopatra’s name on the back.

Martinez said the discovered pieces so far are a reminder that there is still much to be discovered about the mystery of Cleopatra VII rule as well as the mystery surrounding the burial of many Ptolemaic rulers of her predecessors.

The expedition also found during excavations a large cemetery outside the building of the temple dating back to the Greek Ptolemaic period. Mummies covered with gold were found in the coffins at the cemetery with their heads looking towards the temple as if an important person was buried in the temple.

Martinez believes that Cleopatra and Mark Antonio were buried inside the temple of Isis and Osiris in the area of Taposiris Magna, about 45 km west of Alexandria, due to the religious and political importance of the temple.

After the death of Alexander the Great, who invaded Egypt in 332 BC and founded the city of Alexandria, the Macedonian state in the Ptolemaic era was established, according to Martinez.

Over the course of about 300 years of Ptolemaic rule of Egypt, Egypt flourished culturally and mixed ancient Egyptian and Greek art, religions and languages.

SOURCE:  Egypt State Information Service

How living with sickle cell inspired my bestselling debut – Ayòbámi Adébáyò

Stay With Me has put her on the pages of Vogue and now the Wellcome prize shortlist. She talks about dating and growing up in a turbulent Nigeria.

Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s Stay With Me received a glowing review from Michiko Kakutani of the new York Times. Photo: Katherine Rose for the Observer

It has been quite a year for Ayòbámi Adébáyò. She is in London for International Women’s Day, as she was last year, when it was announced that her first novel had been longlisted for the Baileys prize. Stay With Mewent on to make the shortlist and is now up for the Wellcome prize, the winner of which will be announced later this month. The novel was glowingly reviewed, not least by the New York Times’s high priestess Michiko Kakutani(“stunning”, “powerfully magnetic and heartbreaking”); Sarah Jessica Parkerchose it for the American Library’s book club; and the author, who has just turned 30, has been interviewed in both the Paris Review and Vogue. When we meet, she has come from the BBC, where she had been discussing the #MeToo movement in Nigeria. “It’s complex and very different across regions, across class, maybe even across religions,” Adébáyò says, describing what it means to be a young woman in her home country. “I think there is a dissonance between how much is expected of you as a young person, whether you are a man or a woman: you are supposed to go to university, you get a master’s degree, maybe two, particularly if you come from the middle class.

“And somehow, when it gets to a certain point, there’s a separation in how far you can go because a woman is to subsume all of her ambition to – some would say – the ultimate goal of marriage. To be fair, men are also pressured into getting married. But I don’t think men are expected to make the sacrifices that are routinely expected of a woman.”

The deaths of two of her close friends in their teens from SCD was the tragic inspiration for the novel

The intense pressure on women to become wives and mothers is at the heart of Stay With Me, in which the story of a marriage unravelling is set against the turbulent backdrop of Nigeria in the 1980s and 90s. Told in turn from the perspectives of wife and husband, Yejide and Akin, the novel shows what happens when romantic love comes up against social expectations, as Yejide’s failure to conceive becomes a family matter in a culture where a second wife is seen as the obvious solution. Folk tales, gossip at the hair salon Yejide owns, mother-in-law Moomi’s bossy superstitions and bulletins of military takeovers – Stay With Me captures a country and a couple in conflict, pulled between tradition and modernity.

One scene, which would be comic were it not so grotesque, records poor Yejide’s pilgrimage to the Mountain of Jaw-Dropping Miracles, culminating in her breastfeeding a goat. When she finally has a baby, Yejide discovers that she has passed on sickle cell disease.

Infertility and the loss of children might seem audaciously challenging subjects for a first novel, let alone one by a writer then in their 20s, but they are issues which Adébáyò has been thinking about for some time. She was at university when she discovered that she was among Nigeria’s one in four healthy people who are carriers of the sickle cell gene, making it the country most affected by the disease in the world. The depiction of the devastating impact of SCD on families earned the novel its place on the Wellcome list, a prize for fiction or non-fiction that engages with medicine or illness.

“I was thinking of dating someone …” she says with a big, ready laugh when I ask her about why she decided to take the test then. “It makes for awkward conversations. But it’s better to know as early as possible. Because if you become emotionally involved with somebody it’s more difficult to say to yourself: ‘I’m going to walk away from this because I don’t want to make a decision that could have an impact on somebody who’s not here.’ ”

My uncles would discuss politics and we would just tell them ‘don’t say that outside’. Because people did disappear

It’s possible, she continues, “that you could have a child that wouldn’t have the disease. But it’s also possible that you have a baby who does. And it’s also possible that you have five children and they all have the disease. It’s a complicated thing on the level of personal ethics.” Of all those she knows who live with the illness, Adébáyò told BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour last year, “every single one of them said to me they wish their parents never married”.

The deaths of two of her close friends in their teens, and the effect on their families, were the tragic inspiration for the novel. Each crisis is harrowing. “I just couldn’t stop thinking about what it meant for the mother,” she says, recalling how she would still bump into the mother of one friend occasionally. “Not just to experience that kind of loss, but to somehow get up the next day.”

And so the central character of Yejide – a beguiling combination of vulnerability and strength – “just came to me”. The idea started as a short story, which she “sat on for a couple of years, maybe longer”, but there “was just something very vivid about the character that I had to pay attention to”.

Like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Orange prize-winning epic Half of a Yellow Sun, set during the Biafran war, Stay With Me records a period of modern Nigerian history, beginning with the 1985 military coup, a few years before the author was born. Why did she choose to return to the political landscape of her parents and grandparents?

Women waiting to register to vote in Kano, 2015. Photo: Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

“I was very young when the 1993 elections were annulled,” she says. “All I remember about it was that I didn’t have to go to school and I was very excited about that. I did remember my parents were sorely disappointed … The level of frustration that many people felt, the disillusionment of thinking that any moment now we were going to go back to democracy and having that hope dashed and postponed and then eventually dashed totally. I think it had quite an impact on us as children.”

Drawing on “the atmosphere of fear” that hung over her childhood, she made the Lagos and Ilesa of the novel unsettling cities of armed robbers, power cuts and protests. “Sometimes I would be at my grandfather’s place and my uncles would discuss politics downstairs and we would just tell them ‘don’t say that outside’. Because there were people who did disappear, that sort of thing started to happen.”

By the time it was the 80s polygamy was still possible. But I don’t think it was as fashionable as it was before.

One concrete legacy of this period can be seen in the architecture: her grandfather’s house, she explains, has no fence. “You can see everything, it’s really open, you walk in. Then, by the time you get to the 80s, fences start going up and up, most places have stayed that way.”

Cultural evolutions are slower and less visible – such as attitudes towards polygamy: “By the time it was the 80s it was still possible,” Adébáyò says. “But I don’t think it was as fashionable as it was before.” One grandfather had several wives, the other just one.

The family lived in the city of Ile-Ife, 200km from Lagos, where her mother, a doctor, also taught medicine at Obafemi Awolowo University. Growing up with one sister, who was five years younger – “by Nigerian standards I was an only child for quite a while” – she has never worried about being lonely. Her sister is still her first reader: “She’s very honest!”

Even in a household where reading was “almost a competitive sport” (TV didn’t start until after 4pm), Adébáyò had the obsessive edge: “My mother used to laugh that if they asked me to clean up my room I would spend so much time reading every tiny bit of paper, a receipt or whatever, instead of throwing it in the trash.” She recalls taking The Go-Betweenfrom her parents’ library when she was about nine: “I was just heartbroken. It was one of the first books that … oh my God, this can do this to people …”

When she was 14 she wrote a short story which ended with someone “going up in flames”. Her mother asked a colleague in her office to type it up. “She was very upset – how can this terrible thing happen? And then my mother also read it and came into my room and asked: ‘Have you had a happy childhood?’ I remember thinking ‘Yeah’ … But a lot of ideas I had when I was 14 or 15 were scary.” Writing, she concedes, is maybe “a safe place to sort of explore the scariest things”.

She studied literature at Obafemi Awolowo – Wole Soyinka was a professor there from 1976 to 1999 –going on to do an MA, with plans to become a teacher. During her final year she landed a place on a new creative writing workshop set up by Adichie, just after Half of a Yellow Sun was published. It meant going back and forth to Lagos, about three hours’ drive away. “That was when I realised that I would rather fail my exams than not take advantage of this opportunity. It was absolutely worth it.”

She has been lucky in her teachers. In 2014 she began the MA in creative writing at the University of East Anglia in Norwich (“I grew up in a university town, so it felt almost like home,” but a bit less sunny), coinciding with Margaret Atwood’s tenure as visiting Unesco professor. Her year at UEA was the first time that she didn’t feel writing “was stealing time from something else that I had been paid to do”.

Stay With Me took five years to finish, in between working crazy hours at a bank in Lagos. At the end, she was satisfied. “I felt like I would look at it in 10 years and think this is the best I could have done at that time.” The response has been “quite overwhelming”, especially in Nigeria, where, she says, people have really “taken such an ownership of the story”.

And the dreaded second novel? “There will be Nigerians …” is all she will say.

After all the heartbreak, it’s not giving too much away to say that Stay With Meends optimistically – or at least with the possibility of redemption.

But one thing she really wants the reader to take from the novel is how Yejide, at first “terrified about being alone in the world, makes the journey to where she’s comfortable with relying on herself. She’s always been a strong character, but by the end of the book she comes to own that strength unapologetically”

 Stay With Me is published by Canongate. To order a copy for £6.99 (RRP £8.99) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

Alexis Peskine, Aljana Moons – Twin Carriage, 2015

Beyond Black Panther: afrofuturism takes flight at Chicago museum

A new exhibition celebrates black artists who use themes of time travel, technology and heroism to convey a broader image of the African experience.

Alexis Peskine, Aljana Moons – Twin Carriage, 2015
Alexis Peskine, Aljana Moons – Twin Carriage, 2015. Photo: Alexis Peskine

While Black Panther has carved its place in history books as the first major superhero blockbuster with a black director and almost entirely black cast, it’s also notable for bringing afrofuturism to the mainstream. The film’s African sci-fi aesthetic has taken cues from a movement which has been gaining momentum since Sun Ra took the jazz stage in the 1950s.

It’s a discipline that includes literature, music, fashion and art, and in a new exhibition called In Their Own Form, opening at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago on 12 April, the work of 13 black artists is being celebrated. They used key afrofuturist themes of time travel, technology and heroism long before Marvel’s adventure hit the silver screen.

The goal of the show, says curator Sheridan Tucker, is to show a wide range of the Afro-diasporic experience through photography and video. “I wanted to show escapism, nostalgia and time travel, recurring themes in afrofuturism,” said Tucker. “I’m excited people can tap into what I’ve been talking about for a long time.”

The exhibition includes works by Senegal artist Alun Be, whose aim is to change people’s perceptions of Africa. Taken from his Edification series, he has photographed children draped in heroic capes while wearing VR goggles. It suggests some parts of Africa could be as hi-tech as the futuristic world of Wakanda, but few have taken notice. “Are African children the future of Africa, a place others might not think as a forerunner of advanced society?” asks Tucker. “That’s part of common misconception and Alun Be is working to change those ideas.”

How did afrofuturism start? It’s unsure, but Sun Ra, the prolific jazz musician who took to the stage in futuristic regalia in the 1950s, popularized the movement long before it became widespread. Even though the term afrofuturism wasn’t coined until the 1990s, the movement digs back to 20th-century writings of WEB Du Bois and Charles W Chesnutt, and surfaced in pop culture with jazz musician George Clinton, painter Jean-Michel Basquiat and the music of Erykah Badu, Missy Elliott and Janelle Monáe. “It was speculative futurism before we had a name for it in literature and film,” said Tucker. “Since afrofuturism includes literature, poetry, art and mysticism, you can find different starting points.”

Potentiality by Alun Be
Potentiality by Alun Be. Photo: Alun Be

It traces back to activist Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery at 20 years old to write three autobiographies in the late 1800s. “He changed the notion of what black was at that time,” said Tucker. “Douglass was a former slave, he showed himself in a particular way that changed how people perceived black Americans at that time.”

Tucker connects this with how black artists represent themselves. “When I’m speaking of doing away with negative portrayals or misrepresentations of blackness in the west,” she said, “it’s allowing people to decide how they want to be represented and being the author of that representation instead of the other way around.”

That self-image, fuelled with futuristic outfits and science fiction, is a blast of Technicolor and the exhibition proves to be as entertaining as it is educational. South African artist Mary Sibande, who is known for dressing up in altered domestic worker’s clothes, shows a piece called A Terrible Beauty is Born. One black female figure is dressed in a purple dress, which is symbolic of the 1989 anti-apartheid protesters who were sprayed with purple dye to be identified by authorities. “Sibande’s work not only has science fiction-like figures, she references racism, class and apartheid South Africa,” said Tucker. “Her work shows how apartheid affects people then and now.”

French artist Alexis Peskine is showing the video Aljana Moons, which was shot in Senegal, tracing black masculinity from childhood to fatherhood. Many of the men are wearing space-age outfits made from trash, like plastic bottles and cans. “It’s about not having access to a lot but inventing your own identity out of what most people wouldn’t consider valuable material,” said Tucker. “It takes on a new function.”

While science fiction may represent childhood nostalgia for some, it has a different meaning when it comes to afrofuturism. “Sci-fi can be fun, imaginative and fantastical, but I think it becomes serious when you think about the ‘why’ behind one thinking of alternative realities,” said Tucker. “For afrofuturism, my take is that tapping into alternate realities is because your current experience is so problematic and so fraught and not fun. I would say it’s an escape from one’s current situation.”

  • In Their Own Form opens at the Museum of Contemporary Photography on 12 April and will run until 8 July

A woman finds peace before her burial

‘Staff at the Harlem funeral parlour gave Daphne a chiffon scarf and lace gloves to hide her scars, bruises and needle marks’.


This shot of a woman called Daphne Jones was taken at a funeral parlour in Harlem, New York, on the day she was buried. Daphne’s story was tragic. She died from Aids at the age of 54, after spending much of her life as a sex worker and crack addict. Her sons had to be bussed to the funeral from prison. One of them died six months later, at the age of 22. He got into a knife fight a few weeks after leaving prison.

This Harlem funeral home maintains the old-style African American Baptist tradition of elaborately dressing up bodies in preparation for what they believe to be the journey to paradise. I was deeply moved by the idea of death being an occasion for which you put on your finest.

It was October 2003, and I had recently lost both my parents. They died within four months of each other. I was thinking about how we perceive the dead, how strange and painful it is to no longer detect the humanity in those we once loved. I decided to make postmortem portraits of people – not as corpses, but as human beings. This meant photographing my dead subjects in the same way I would photograph living ones, recapturing the qualities that made them human.

Most of the people I photographed at the funeral home had been members of a vibrant church community, supported by family and friends. Daphne was an exception. When I arrived, she looked neglected and emaciated. Her nylon stockings bagged on her skinny legs and she had a livid knife scar on her neck. This gave me a dilemma: do I take a “true” portrait of Daphne? Such a shot would be different from any of the others in my series.

At the start of each session at the funeral parlour, I had to fight the urge to run away

When I first framed the photo, I saw a distressing portrait: a skeletal-looking woman with bruises, needle marks and scars. Then I tilted the camera and cropped out her legs, which dramatically changed the portrait. But I still was not at peace with it. After going back and forth, I eventually decided to photograph Daphne as if life had been kinder to her.

I softened the lighting, which helped to conceal signs of illness. One of the funeral home staff found a chiffon scarf and lace gloves to cover her neck and hands, and we added those glittering earrings. Most importantly, I asked for her head to be gently tilted so she looked graceful and at peace. As with many eulogies, I created a portrait of someone as I thought she might like to be remembered, rather than a memento of struggle and misfortune.

This series was extremely challenging. I was working in cramped, badly lit conditions – under huge pressure to get it right, as the subject would be buried shortly. There could be no do-overs. It was emotionally trying, too. I had never seen a dead body before I started all this. Now I was regularly in the presence of death – with all its smells and ugliness, its evidence of illness and suffering. At the start of each session, I had to fight the urge to run away. But as things went on, I would lose myself in the process.

I felt as if I got to know Daphne intimately. I spent three very concentrated, very private hours with her, observing, learning her story, seeing how her face changed in different light, trying to do the best I could for her, sharing her last hours on Earth and trying to give the story of her complicated life a good ending.

A few days later, I was looking at the contact sheets in the lab and it struck me – the fact that I would never be able to show Daphne her photo. I felt waves of sadness, not dissimilar to mourning. It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. I began my project wondering about how the life and vibrancy drained from people after they died. With Daphne it was the opposite. Stripping away the signs of her hard life revealed the beautiful, vibrant woman she might have been.

Interview by Hannah Gal. Elizabeth Heyert’s The Outsider is published by Damiani Books.

Post-internet confusion before the internet – Joan Jonas review

Tate Modern, London
Papier-mache animal heads and Vietnamese kites, Tilda Swinton and tap-dancing – it’s hard to cut through the clutter of the New York veteran’s hyperactive art.

A still from Wolf Lights, 2005. Photo: Artists Rights Society/Joan Jonas/DACS

There is a lot going on in Joan Jonas’s art, and a lot to Jonas herself, a veteran of the late 1960s downtown New York scene. Performance artist and maker of large-scale installations, interpreter of filmed folktales and myths, choreographer, collector, reader, actor, traveller, a maker of drawings – everything she does is a kind of performance.

Joan Jonas in a mask, not being Joan Jonas. Jonas wearing the papier-mache head of an animal. The artist howling like a wolf, and drawing birds and fish, stags and faces. Feminism and animism, storytelling and dancing, dressing and undressing, examining her body with a hand mirror, clowning on a Venetian mosaic floor.

Joan Jonas in her home and studio, New York. Photograph: Mike McGregor for the Observer

Jonas dancing to a jerky harmonica in her studio, her dog Zina watching the speeded-up, frenetic movements with something like patience. A frequent if unknowing participant in Jonas’s work, the dog has seen it all before. Here’s Jonas looming in a convex mirror and wishing us good morning and goodnight. She appears and disappears, in a series of daily returns. I’m reminded of the postcards Japanese artist On Karawa sent every day, telling his recipients that he was still alive. Jonas, now in her 80s, is still working and performing, revisiting earlier works and continually reconfiguring her art before our eyes.

This makes for complicated viewing. Works run into one another, or split into a melange of drawings and objects, sculptures as stage props and props as sculpture, different events happening on different screens. Larger-scale works incorporate several video screens, as well as drawings and other objects. Sound leaks from work to work, voices and music and ambient noise. Just as you grasp a thread of plot, an action, a voice or a bit of dialogue, it is snatched away. The tempo and mood keep shifting. Hers is an art of constant interruption, spillage and surprise. All this is deliberate – when Jonas had the American pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale, I felt as if I had been plunged into her life, swerving between the studio and the beach, and caught between the personal, the diaristic and the solipsistic. This can be wearying. Sometimes, you don’t know where to look.

They Come to Us without a Word II, 2015. Photo: Joan Jonas/DACS

All this feels very current, like a post-internet confusion before the internet happened. She has gone from grainy late 1960s video to hi-def, via all the tricks of the developing technology. But somehow her body as much as her voice is always there, and the materiality of the world around her. Hoving in and out of view and following her intuitions, Jonas aims for a kind of poetry that she doesn’t always achieve. There is always so much stuff getting in the way. Here is a drawing of a gurnard. There’s a woodpecker. And, on a table, Jonas’s collection of folk art: carved owls and seagulls, wooden fishing lures and a rubber stag’s head, once worn in Lena Dunham’s Delusional Downtown Divas web series. I’m not sure where this gets us. Among her video works she has had Tilda Swinton acting in an Icelandic saga, and used Seamus Heaney’s Sweeney Astray, a translation of the 12th-century Irish tale Buile Shuibhne. All this could be great, but isn’t.

Literature – Borges and William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound, poet Hilda Doolittle’s Helen in Egypt and the Brothers Grimms’ The Juniper Tree – all have their place, along with Vietnamese kites strung from the ceiling, filmed cockatoos swaying in plastic bins and young women playing with a shroud of gauze. Somewhere, a conversation is going on, but I don’t quite catch it. I hear wailing, and I think it might be me. The difficulties are compounded by the catalogue, with its essays set in a horribly cramped typeface. The captions, in a smaller size font, are impossible. This, for a collaboration with three major art institutions (in Munich and Porto as well as London) is incompetent. The essays themselves are plodding and sub-academic arguments. I feel as if I have been plunged into an art theory time-warp. Several interviews with the artist are more helpful, but the whole thing is a bit of a fog.

Some works are made to be seen in miniature theatres, as you sit and gaze into wooden boxes where videos play against a far wall. Designed for an audience of one, these little screening boxes make you forget scale and distance. I peer in one, and watch tap-dancing Cape Breton islanders, with fiddlers by waterfalls. In another, people in a cabin dance with wooden chairs, banging and twirling them about the room. This is fun. The little kid caught up in all this choreographed cacophony doesn’t seem so sure.

Since the late 1960s, Jonas has spent part of each year working in Nova Scotia, and Cape Breton’s coast has become a recurring presence in her work. The earliest work in her exhibition is her 1968 16mm black and white film Wind. Jonas and artist Keith Hollingworth wander a wintry beach, dressed in costumes with mirrored panels. Their outfits look vaguely constructivist. A further group of performers wearing black masks and capes cower and lean into the wind, finding it hard to stay upright in the furious weather.

Lines in the Sand, 2002. Photo: Joan Jonas/DACS

Wind, and a number of other parts of her show, is shown in one of Tate Modern’s Tanks. She has drawn on the concrete walls, and in another, four-screen work, music surges portentously. It sounds like Vangelis. From Friday, a number of the artist’s live pieces will be performed. I have higher hopes for these than for many of her multimedia installations.

There is a lot to admire in Jonas’s art; its energy and curiosity, and the way she runs with her intuition, unabashed and unafraid to see where things will go. There are great moments, but too often they are subsumed in trivia. Not much of it moves me, and often her art seems like a grand exercise in misdirection. Who is Joan Jonas, and where is she? Drawing lines in the sand, a shadow on the beach grass. That’s the bit I like best, unaffected and unadorned.

Kenyan photographer drops concept art for Marvel’s Black Panther

To coincide with the launch of the wildly anticipated and already acclaimed film Black Panther, Marvel commissioned Kenyan Afro-futurist artist Osborne Macharia to create an exclusive art project. Macharia has titled the project “Ilgelunot”, which, in Maasai, means “The Chosen Ones”.

Osborne Macharia’s 3 blind elders “The Chosen Ones” project. Photo: ThisisAfrica

Marvel Studios could not have found a more fitting artist to commission than Osborne Macharia, arguably one of the most dynamic and iconic photographers on the African continent at the moment. His composite photographs employ elements of history, science fiction and digital photo editing to depict historical narratives and social issues, giving them his signature twist that revises, interrogates and re-examines the topics.

Macharia’s past projects include:

Magadi This is the story of a group of former female circumcisers who abandoned this practice and now live on the vast salty plains of Lake Magadi, where they have taken up ethnic fashion as an alternative livelihood.

Macicio The story revolves around the Mau Mau, the guerilla fighters in Kenya’s struggle for independence.

Melanin (0) This project deals with the dreams and aspirations of people living with albinism.

By focusing on such topics as albinism, discrimination against street children and the elderly, Macharia has introduced a whole new cast of hip-hop grandfathers, extravagant grannies and freedom-fighting opticians to the Kenyan art scene.

It is easy to see the synergy with Black Panther: The film’s Afro-futuristic elements challenge the stereotypical on-screen representations of race and gender and embrace a cinematic experience where blackness and Africanness are equated with advancement, cybernetics and sci-fi fantasy.

“The Chosen Ones” project tells the story of the three elders of Maasai origin who were Black Panther’s most trusted advisors. The elders were saved during World War II by the old king of Wakanda, T’Chaka, after they wandered across North Africa in search of refuge. And even though exposure to the fictional metal Vibranium had made them blind, the woman and two men gained supernatural abilities and acumen. For the photo project, Macharia also created a custom typography inspired by geometric tribal patterns.

Leader “Saiton” from Osborne Macharia’s “The Chosen Ones” project The Tall One “Koinet” from Osborne Macharia’s “The Chosen Ones” project Manly “Kokan” from Osborne Macharia’s “The Chosen Ones” project

In a Facebook post, showcasing his project, Macharia said, “A proud moment to be part of the most important Afro-futuristic movie of my generation.”

We knew it was only a matter of time before the world discovered the marvel that is Osborne Macharia.

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Watch the Met Opera stage a sea of blood

Watch the Met Opera stage a sea of blood

Watch the Met Opera stage a sea of blood
Damon Winter/The New York Times

When it comes to blood, Quentin Tarantino has nothing on the Metropolitan Opera. Stabbings, shootings, torture and beheadings are routine at the Met. But the bloodiest show of them all may be François Girard’s production of Wagner’s “Parsifal,” which returns on Feb. 5 and floods the theater’s vast stage with some 1,250 gallons of the stuff.

The stage blood — made from a recipe that includes tap water, glycerin, and red and blue dye, mixed to taste — is created in Brooklyn by a company called J&M Special Effects, which heats and trucks it to the Met in 250-gallon rectangular tanks before each performance.

Photo: Damon Winter/The New York Times

Since opera singers do not care for frozen feet, the blood is kept warm in the tanks, which are swaddled in industrial-grade heating blankets until the last possible moment. At eight minutes before the curtain went up at a recent rehearsal, Terry Ganley, a stage manager, gave the cue.

“Fill ’er up,” she told a team of stagehands, many of whom wore rubber boots. The blood flowed.

Watch the Met Opera stage a sea of blood
Photo: Damon Winter/The New York Times

The Met isn’t trying to create a slasher opera. “Parsifal” is Wagner’s metaphysical meditation on the knights of the Holy Grail, the goblet supposedly used at the Last Supper and which later caught Jesus’s blood on the cross. Their leader, Amfortas, suffers from a mysterious wound that will not heal. In Mr. Girard’s poetic 2013 production, blood is a central visual element.

Damon Winter/The New York Times

“The overall staging didn’t glue until we started playing with blood, because that is ultimately the voltage of the piece,” said Mr. Girard, who has included a river of blood; a bleeding bed; and, here, in Act II, a shallow pool of blood that covers the stage. “There was a lot of resistance: You can imagine the nightmare. But they’ve mastered it now.”

Damon Winter/The New York Times

The Met tries to keep the blood warm for the singers and dancers who must stand in it — for a typically Wagnerian hourlong act — by placing heating pads under the red vinyl that lines the pool onstage. But the blood begins cooling as soon as it pours out. Philip J. Volpe, the Met’s master electrician, monitors its temperature with an infrared thermometer.

Photo: Damon Winter/The New York Times

Keeping things neat and safe with over 1,000 gallons of fake blood sloshing around is not easy. An overflow trough sits behind the pool. Rows of chairs with towels and sandals are placed for the performers coming off the bloody stage, and absorbent mats and brown paper are taped along the path to their dressing rooms. Members of the stage crew are posted beneath the stage to make sure no blood seeps into the Met’s underground storage areas, where sets for operas like “L’Elisir d’Amore” and “Pagliacci” are currently stored.

Photo: Damon Winter/The New York Times

A unique kind of stage-prop dialysis is used to keep the blood hygienic. Following each performance, the tanks of blood are trucked back to J&M, which filters out any newly added particles of foam and dust. The blood is then purified with ultraviolet light to kill bacteria.

“We can’t use chlorine or anything like that because it would turn the water pink,” said David Feheley, the Met’s technical director. “Which is, you know, less dramatic.”

Photo: Damon Winter/The New York Times

The blood creates striking tableaus — drenching the dress Evelyn Herlitzius wears as she sings the role of Kundry, a wild woman in the thrall of an evil sorcerer; and helping the audience visualize the spiritual quest taken by Parsifal (the tenor Klaus Florian Vogt). And it fits squarely into Mr. Girard’s conception of the opera.

SOURCE: The Bloomgist/NYT Art

Drama review: Hear Word is back, with even a bang

Drama review: Hear Word is back, with even a bang

This weekend, the buzzy play Hear Word made a triumphant return to the stage at the Muson Centre, Lagos in what can now be considered an annual tradition.

Drama review: Hear Word is back, with even a bang

Directed by iOpenEye’s Ifeoma Fafunwa, and populated by an all-female cast that consists of some of the finest actresses of stage and screen, this year’s revival of Hear Word is led by veteran Joke Silva but also features mainstays like Bimbo Akintola, Ufuoma McDermott, Omonor and Zara Udofia-Ejoh who reprise roles they have played in previous iterations.

Hear Word begins with a bang and does not quite let up.

In the course of two hours and 23 sequences, the play runs through the gamut of experiences that come with living as a female in Nigeria. It is in turns political, spiritual, sexual and emotional.

Hear Word’s first ace is in its recognition of the flawed makeup of humanity. Having gotten this out of the way, the play finds room to accommodate the good, bad and ugly. Not suitable for kids, Hear Word refuses to shy away from using salty language and places the flexible bodies of the actresses front and centre to paint several portraits that hold several mirrors up to society. Sound, music and lighting are used effectively to uncover the pain that lies beneath.

There is a lot of pain.

There are individual solos where each actress gets her shine time and there are group pieces that split the glory evenly. All of them pack a punch. Some are uneven. Most are unforgettable.

The experience is split into three acts. The first is an indictment of women in the maltreatment and denigration of their fellows. In Girl ChildBimbo Akintola finds out the hard way, from her husband’s female relatives that having a child is a blessing but only when the child is male.

The phenomenal Omonor isn’t impressed by her modern daughter in-law in My Pikin wife, a funny but tragic look at patriarchy systems through the eyes of an oppressed female while Ashewo is biting commentary that unlocks how women unleash the title word as weapon to undermine the achievements of their peers. A woman who sits atop a corporate empire is an ashewo reporting for duty, ditto the one who takes a walk with her male colleague, and so is the Nollywood actress with the failed marriage. The woman whose husband brings her breakfast in bed after years of marriage however? That one is a witch.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, it is the sad situation that many a woman has been boxed into by unfair societal demands.

The most problematic part of Hear Word, and the one that has given the play a reputation – unfairly too – for man bashing is tucked in the mid-portion. Here the men are the big baddies and the themes run the gamut from rape to religion as cover for sexual abuse and emotional abuse.

All heavy stuff.

These skits pulverize the unsuspecting audience, one after the other, in quick succession. Multiple sighs are heaved, tears flow too and by the time Debbie Ohiri kicks off the Yoruba chant that is the play’s version of I’m-mad-as-hell-and-I’m-not-going-to-take-it-anymore, the audience is ready for release.

This release comes in the form of Ms Silva as Iyaloja, visibly empowered to fend off greedy relatives that circle her husband’s corpse. She gets a resounding applause and loud whoops for her efforts. Ufuoma McDermott scores some too for her now classic interpretation of Sister Esther with the voracious sexual appetite. And Omonor gives every woman who has suffered physical violence at the hands of a man some small victory when she calls for a pivotal Family Meeting.

Hear Word’s politics are pretty clear. It is unafraid to take a feminist stand but the writers are woke enough to understand that both genders are equal offenders and as such, it must take equal partnership to uplift the Nigerian woman. Every party has to accept their blame and strive towards being better, doing better.

Scripted from recordings of real life stories and experiences of Nigerian women, Hear Word should be required viewing for every adult human being. Ifeoma Fafunwa has once again amplified the voices of these invisible Nigerian women.

It is now left for as many of us to hear word.

Harry Potter at 20: Business empire with humble start

​After years of rejection letters, British author J.K. Rowling finally published the first volume of the Harry Potter saga 20 years ago, on June 26, 1997.

“Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” was the first of seven novels that spawned an empire comprising eight movies, a play, theme parks in the United States and Japan, a sightseeing tour in Scotland and a permanent exhibition at London’s Warner Bros Studios.

Here is the background of a global phenomenon:

The author

Joanne Kathleen Rowling was born into a modest family in Chipping Sodbury, western England, on July 31, 1965.

She studied French and Classics at the University of Exeter before going to teach English in Portugal, where she began to chronicle the adventures of Harry Potter.

Rowling married Portuguese television journalist Jorge Arantesa in 1992, giving birth to their daughter Jessica in 1993. The couple divorced in 1995 and the author moved to Edinburgh, Scotland.

After finishing the novel, she joined forces with publisher Bloomsbury in August 1996.

Named Britain’s best living writer in 2006, she has accrued a fortune of £650 million (743 million euros), according to the Sunday Times rich list published in May 2017.

She remarried in 2001, to Scottish doctor Neil Murray, and the couple have a boy and a girl.

The story

Conjured up on a 1990 train journey between Manchester and London, the saga follows a young wizard named Harry Potter and his friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, led by headmaster Albus Dumbledore.

The main plot revolves around Harry’s fight against Lord Voldemort, a dark lord of magic in search of immortality who murdered Potter’s parents when he was still a baby.

Seven books

The entire saga comprises seven volumes, published between 1997 and 2007, with each taking place during a school year.

The story begins in the summer of 1991 when Harry Potter, not yet 11 years old, is accepted into Hogwarts.

Eight films

The seven books were adapted into eight movies, with the last volume “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” divided into two feature films.

The first two films were directed by Chris Columbus, the third by Mexican Alfonso Cuaron, the fourth by Mike Newell and the last four by David Yates.

A play

“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”, a two-and-a-half-hour play staged in London since July 2016, follows the hero as an adult and father-of-three.

In the production, Potter struggles to cope with his past while his family legacy proves to be a burden on youngest son Albus Severus Potter, “the cursed child.”

The numbers

In all, the seven volumes of the saga, translated into 79 languages ​​in 200 countries, have sold more than 450 million copies worldwide.

The first print run of “the Philosopher’s Stone” produced 1,000 copies — all now highly-sought after collectors items – and earned Rowling a £1,500 contract.

The movies have netted $7.2 billion (6.4 billion euros) worldwide, the books $7.7 billion, and merchandise $7.3 billion dollars, according to data from dating from September 2016.

Tourist attractions

The Harry Potter studios in Leavesden, north of London, invites fans to immerse themselves in Potter-world at a permanent exhibition, welcoming 6,000 visitors a day.

There are also theme parks created by Universal Studio in Orlando, Florida, Hollywood and Osaka, Japan.

VisitScotland, the Scotland Tourist Board, has set up a four-day guided tour from Edinburgh to the Highlands via the Glenfinnan or Edinburgh Viaduct, which feature in the saga.