Dunedin Consort, Vivaldi’s ‘La Favorita’ (Queen’s Hall: 6 April ’18)

Dunedin Consort: Vivaldi’s La Favorita

“The very essence of live music making”

Editorial Rating:  5 Stars: Outstanding

 

Was this going to be, if not too much of a good thing, well, just too esoteric? It was a risk, and, while the stalls were a little over half full and just a few concertgoers in the balcony, such attendance levels are not unusual at the Queen’s Hall for chamber music. With Vivaldi, take away The Four Seasons and the Gloria and what have you got? A series of mostly string concertos that all sound very similar.

 

That is the perception. Friday’s concert by Edinburgh’s own Dunedin Consort proved it wrong. A cleverly chosen selection of seven string concertos from a cache of 27 manuscript volumes of composition discovered in Northern Italy in the 1920s provided a glorious treat of baroque music that whilst not having the gravitas or structure of his German contemporary Bach was a rewarding example of the Italian Baroque, and in many ways gentler on the ear. If Bach is the master of counterpoint, then surely Vivaldi is the master of ritornello? The tutti passages are more rounded.

 

The programme was titled La Favorita and this writer’s wicked sense of humour wondered if it was sponsored by a smart Edinburgh pizza group with its blinding, wood-fired, Cinquecentos. Not so, the title would have referred to one of the star female pupils under Vivaldi’s tutelage at the Ospedale della Pietá in Venice for whom a number of these works were written, possibly the mysterious “Anna” about whom we know very little. The boys learned a trade and had to leave the orphanage when they reached the age of fifteen. The girls received a musical education, and the most talented among them stayed and became members of the Ospedale’s renowned orchestra and choir.

 

La Favorita was reincarnated in a sense in the concert by Music Director and Soloist Cecilia Bernardini, leader of the Consort, who backed by two violins, cello, bass and harpsichord led us though an assortment of musical treats that entertained from start to finish.

 

The band kicked off with “Il Corneto da Posta” (RV 363), a joyful, simple work with a highly effective interplay between soloist and cello (honourable mention to Andrew Skidmore throughout the evening) in the first movement. Each work followed the classic three movement construct that was Vivaldi’s late Baroque hallmark. The Concerto for Strings and Basso Continuo (RV156) did everything it said on the tin and was an excellent, satisfying example of the continuo genre. There followed two Violin Concertos (RVs 387 and 224) where the players brought real verve and commitment to the music that otherwise might have seemed repetitive. We were being treated to some seriously good playing by the ensemble as a whole.

 

Following the interval came three more works, the first, very much in the Venetian tradition, being played up above us in the balcony, with the exception, for logistical reasons, of the harpsichordist. Stephen Farr wittily told us that the music he was reading from his iPad was an early 18th century Venetian model. Well, I guess we were only a few days past April Fool’s day. The Violin Concerto “Il Riposo” (RV270a) was tranquil, calming, and beautiful. A further Concerto for Strings and Basso Continuo (RV 128) and Violin Concerto (RV283) and a charming pizzicato encore brought the evening to a close.

 

In trying to summarise what made this evening so special, when to many a collection of unknown minor works from a late Baroque Italian composer famous only for a couple of numbers might seem at best, obscure, I have concluded that there were two drivers. Intelligent programme selection, and – here I am again extolling the joys of live music – truly excellent, committed playing on the night. The very essence of live music making. Bravo!

 

outstanding

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 6 April)

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Rhinoceros (Lyceum Theatre: 23 March-7 April ’18)

Cast of Rhinoceros. Photography by Mihaela Bodlovic.

“A phenomenal combination of cast, crew, sound, visuals, and timeliness.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

There often comes a point in allegorical pieces of theatre where an audience may understandably begin to tune out – the moment where they ‘get it’. Perhaps the thinly veiled stand-ins for real-world issues and figures wears tiresome, or the existential point of the play itself has simply been repeated ad nauseam. To the immense credit of director Murat Daltaban, adaptor Zinnie Harris, sound designer Oğuz Kaplangi, and the entire cast of The Lyceum’s staging of Eugene Ionesco’s absurd masterpiece Rhinoceros, during this production, that moment never comes.

Instead, this 96-minute masterpiece enraptures the audience at breakneck pace from start to finish, as it follows a quiet provincial town through a terribly sudden series of disastrous encounters with immense rhinoceroses who seem to come out of nowhere. As the townspeople begin to realise that their own citizens are transforming into the rhinoceroses around them, the remaining human beings react with a mixture of confusion, anguish, and disbelief, which all-too-quickly melts into skepticism, complacency, and inaction. Just motley, disheveled protagonist Berenger (an electric Robert Jack) seems to react with sheer panic and disgust for the beasts, and angles to figure out what to do, only to be talked over and ignored by everyone else.

On the subject matter, one can understand why Zinnie Harris’ adaptation of Ionesco’s hot-blooded anti-fascist play won over audiences at the Edinburgh International Festival this past year with its infuriating banality. The choice to follow Orson Welles’ example (when he directed the first English production of Rhinoceros at the Royal Court in 1960) and relocate the action from France, the original setting, to pseudo-modern Britain — possibly even Scotland…possibly even Edinburgh — is a commendable one, as the calamitous loss of reason and morality among society feels all too believable when delivered with accents as local as these. Even since its 2017 festival debut, the play has gained even more harrowing relevance, considering the looming deadline for Britain’s inflammatory exit from the European Union and the unimaginable complacency on display inside the Republican-led US government to its own all-American brand of authoritarianism. Harry Ward’s pitch-perfect and side-splitting rendition of The Logician’s “re-contextualizing” of the most pedantic and existential elements of the rhinoceros question, (instead of just focusing on what to do about it), is all too familiar, and a clever jab that lands brilliantly.

The play is full of commendably measured performances, including standout bone-headedness from Sally Reid as Botard and Myra McFadyen as a suspiciously familiar-looking Monsieur Papillon. Esin Harvey, John Cobb, and Natalie Arle-Toyne also turn in hilarious and eye-catching portrayals of variously deluded and theatrical supporting characters. But the real scene-stealer is Steven McNicoll as Jean, the rotund and incorrigible gentleman who bats Berenger around verbally and physically as he opines on the world, almost always in a completely unproductive direction. McNicoll plays Jean with such revolting yet somehow delightful arrogance and verbosity that in the genuinely terrifying sequence where Jean falls victim to the mysterious affliction, it is sad to see him go.

Complete loss of humanity, and the structures and pillars upon which ‘decent society’ are meant to rest, are ingeniously realised onstage. The set itself develops alongside the narrative by steadily adding platforms to raise the action higher and higher above the open settings the first scene. With truly nightmarish effect, the playing area for the performers becomes smaller and smaller, and physically farther away from where they began: a ‘rising tide’ of fascism. In addition to the set, the impressive stagecraft features delightfully insane costume design by Tom Piper, effective and visually arresting lighting design by Chris Davey (particularly memorable when Jean’s silhouette is portrayed in full during his horrifying transformation into the eponymous beast), and a pitch-perfect soundscape, composed and mostly performed onstage by Oğuz Kaplangi.

The ingenuity of Kaplangi’s sonic contribution is first introduced as the first rhinoceros stomps by, signified by a cacophonous racket that echoes behind and around the audience, leaving the viewer to fill in the visuals with their mind’s eye to match the might and ferocity that the onstage townspeople are witnessing. The fabulous use of sound and music only improves throughout the play, and it is striking how often the unsettling and masterfully composed soundtrack re-enters so subtly that the viewer might not notice its recurrence until it reaches an intense crescendo. Kaplangi also turns in perhaps the most unexpectedly memorable performance as a local cat, who saunters across the stage at the very opening and introduces the tone of the production perfectly.

This production deserves to be seen by a wide and receptive audience, even though it falls victim to some less inspired elements. Harris, has for some reason, inserts repeated opportunities for the onstage performers to interact with the audience and generally poke and prod at the fourth wall. There are references to how hard it is to memorise some of the long words in the script, a direct description of how great the Royal Lyceum Theatre is, and quite a few winks to the audience about how insane the play has gotten. The production is so well-executed in nearly every other regard that the self-deprecation comes off as cheap and unnecessary. There is also a particularly aggravating sequence where Berenger and Dudard, at the peak of the storyline’s mayhem, conduct an entire conversation without looking each other in the eyes; and though this is quickly reframed as a deliberately surreal choice, it is perhaps too distanced from the narrative urgency of the scene.

One last note: perhaps this production’s most intriguing effect is the startling realisation that Ionesco’s cautionary tale of a society allowing itself to be consumed by monstrous, unacceptable forces, fits well into rejections of widespread societal change as a whole, both left and right wing. To be clear, Ionesco’s Rhinoceros is unmistakably anti-fascism and anti-fanaticism, and Daltaban pulls no punches about who to reference and ridicule. Yet Berenger’s climactic monologue, alone atop a mountain of crumbled society, announcing that he is the “last white man left,” and remarking on the foreign skin colour of the ubiquitous animals, leaves an oddly white supremacist taste in the mouth. Perhaps Harris and Daltaban, and even Ionesco himself, are intentionally reframing the ‘lone hero’ of Berenger as unreasonably disdainful of the new form of his fellow citizens, or perhaps society today regards Berenger’s self-assumed superiority more skeptically than Ionesco’s 1960 production would have, making what was once a statement of European decency sound more like a nationalist wail. Whether or not you agree, this heavy question serves as yet another reason to head over to The Lyceum for a night of hilarious yet harrowing théâtre de l’absurde. 

With such a phenomenal combination of cast, crew, sound, visuals, and timeliness, Murat Daltaban’s production of Rhinoceros is not one to miss.

outstanding

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Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 24 March)

Visit The Lyceum archive.

 

A Bottle of Wine and Patsy Cline (Rose Theatre: 1-30 Dec ’17)

“Everything about this production oozes quality”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars

For the uninitiated (like me), Patsy Cline was an American country music singer who found fame in the late 1950s/early 1960s, and went on to become one of the most influential, successful and acclaimed vocalists of the 20th century. Her life was tragically cut short at the age of 30, and this production represents a fresh (and fitting) celebration of the star and her work as part of Gilded Balloon’s winter programme at the newly revived Rose Theatre.

Created by the team that introduced Doris, Dolly & The Dressing Room Divas to the world at the Fringe in 2015, A Bottle of Wine and Patsy Cline is a hilarious new musical play featuring all the classic songs fans will love. Yet the only wine you’ll see is the free (mini) bottle you get as part of your entry to the show…

Written as a whistle-stop tour of Cline’s short life, Morag Fullerton’s script slickly presents the turning points in her career and personal life, squeezing in the hits, plenty of laughs and a few of the sadder moments along the way. I would have liked to see more detail in some moments and more creative risk taken with the structure of the piece – it’s safe, straightforward biographical narrative ticks along at a consistent pace – but otherwise everything about this production just oozes quality.

Giving Cline new life in this production is local gal Gail Watson: one of the most accomplished performers currently working in Scotland. Not only a supremely talented singer and impressionist in her own right, Watson commands the stage as the title character and delivers a knockout performance, demonstrating stamina and vocal control performers half her age dream of. Her standing ovation is well-deserved.

Watson is more than capably supported throughout the performance by Sandy Nelson and Hannah Jarrett-Scott, who not only play numerous roles between them, but also act as band and backing singers during the musical numbers. Given the teases of brilliance they demonstrate, it’s a shame we don’t get to see more of each and the wonderful cameo roles they play throughout the show.

Beware – some audience members like to sing along with every song. Those who prefer a silent audience may cringe and crush their plastic cups at the thought, but it’s the kind of show where some formalities can be overlooked. In short: you’d be Crazy to miss it!

 

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 9 December)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

RSNO: Gomez, Sunwoo (Usher Hall:10 Nov.’17)

Yekwon Sunwoo
Photo: Philadelphia Chamber Music Society

“Sunwoo’s opening was utterly assured in its relaxed confidence, disposing of the keys with easy liquidity so that we were leaning forward in our seats to capture every nuance of interpretation”

Editorial Rating:  5 Stars Outstanding

 

I have written before of the RSNO’s skill in concert programming, often successfully juxtaposing contrasting yet somehow complementary works. Friday’s concert was to be a full blown Romantic affair in the Russian 20th century genre starting with the exquisite and rarely performed Vocalise, but, alas, illness, so common in the concert world at this time of the year, forced a programme and artist change. No Vocalise. Instead, we got Zulu, by British composer Daniel Kidane (b.1986). Quite a change.

 

Yet after the initial upset there was no room for disappointment. Jose Luis Gomez stood in for the indisposed Christian Macelaru at the last minute and arrived from America with a score of the symphony in his pocket. “Who doesn’t travel with Shostakovich 12?” His credentials were impressive, Assistant to Paavo Jarvi at the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra and in 2010 winner of First Prize in the Solti Conducting Competition. Currently he is Music Director of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra.

 

Prize winning credentials were also the order of the day for piano soloist Yekwon Sunwoo, prizewinner at the 2017 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, and the programme change from Rach 2 to Rach 3 was in fact a welcome change from the much played second concerto to its slightly less well known, but in every other way equal sibling.

 

So on to the playing. Zulu was five minutes of noise. Enthusiastic brass playing, well orchestrated, good rhythm and momentum. Composer Daniel Kidane has studied at the Royal Northern, Royal College and privately at St Petersburg. The work was chosen from his participation in the RSNOs Composers’ Hub. It was a conceptual stretch to include it in the programme, but it made for a lively opening.

 

Next up was Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 3 in D minor. I have seldom heard this work played so well, certainly not in the hands of a 21 year old. Sunwoo’s opening was utterly assured in its relaxed confidence, disposing of the keys with easy liquidity so that we were leaning forward in our seats to capture every nuance of interpretation. As the first movement Allegro ma non tanto developed so did Sunwoo’s attack, holding nothing back yet stopping way short of pastiche. You do not have to wear Rachmaninov on your sleeve to get the best out of of it. The RSNO accompanied him with playing that was glorious in its phrasing and intensity. The work has long solo and barely accompanied passages, not exactly cadenzas, but close. Time and again Sunwoo nursed and coaxed freshness of interpretation from this well known, much loved piece. Notwithstanding 45 minutes of bravura playing we were treated to an encore. The quiet and restful interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Autumn Song from the Seasons lasted a full five minutes bringing the dramatic first half of the evening to a relaxing, introspective close. If you don’t know it, find it here on You Tube.

 

The second part of the evening was an assured, storming interpretation of Shostakovich’s 12th Symphony The Year 1917. Written in 1961 when Shostakovich was still not out of the political woods it is obviously a political work but without taking anything away from its inherent musicality. “Revolutionary Petrograd” started with typically haunting, bleak cellos and basses suggesting barren topographical (and political) landscapes full of desolation and foreboding before being joined by the upper strings in a more purposeful and positive timbre. Played continuously for 40 minutes the demanding work gave the whole orchestra, from expertly played woodwind soloists to stunning percussion, the opportunity to give the best possible account of themselves, which they did. The work built up though tableaux such as “Razliv” (Lenin’s revolutionary headquarters), “Aurora” (the battleship that fired the opening shots of the Bolshevik coup) and, finally the optimistically named “Dawn of Humanity” which was at least in musical terms a summation of all the themes that had gone before, and gave the orchestra the opportunity to demonstrate fluent, assured playing that whilst on occasions very loud, was never forced.

 

I have often said that one of the reasons live music is so exciting is the risk of failure. Here we had a last minute change of two out of the three pieces in the programme and a conductor no one had met or played under before the previous day. The result? Perhaps the most exciting and enjoyable concert I have been to this year. The RSNO continues to improve and impress

 

 

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 10 November)

Go to the RSNO, Scotland’s National Orchestra

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The Girl Who Jumped Off The Hollywood Sign (Assembly Roxy: Until 28 Aug: 11.30: 70 mins)

“Hartstone inhabits her characters (male and female) much as Liz Taylor was supposed to have simply been Cleopatra”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

We enter to the strains of Arthur Dooley Wilson singing As Time Goes By. The mood is glamorously sombre. On stage is the top half of the ‘H’ of the Hollywood sign. Onto it steps a figure in black dressed as though for a funeral. How did she get here? What (and who) have pushed her to this?

The story which writer and performer Joanne Hartstone has to tell is eerily familiar. Evelyn Margaret Edwards (or Evie Edwards, to use her stage name), is a naive young lady seeking to change her rags into riches through the magic of the Hollywood limelight. She has dreamed of becoming a star all through the Great Depression, from the stock market crash, via a Hooverville, and the unending grind of a hand-to-mouth existence. But without a fairy godmother her dreams are outshone by the stark realities of the entertainment industry.

A few days back I was interviewing the star of an American Civil Rights drama. With tongue firmly in cheek I asked if she was grateful to President Trump for helping to keep the issues she tackles relevant. “We’ll he’s great for my ticket sales!” she replied with a sad grin. We reflected on the truth that tragedy and suffering are the Fringe writer’s bread and butter – no one ever paid to see a play about contented people happily pottering through an uneventful life.

The good writer tells a tragic story in its time and place. The brilliant do that too, but they also say something universal about the human experience at all times and in all places. Hartstone has written a piece that falls squarely into the latter category. Her script is at once an insider’s tour of Hollywood’s Golden era (for ‘insider’ read, ‘black and white movie nerd’). It is also a profound reflection on the use and abuse of women – their ambitions, their independence, their bodies and souls.

The delivery is paced, but pacy – never lagging or getting ahead of itself. The story unwinds like a spool of luxury cloth under an exacting tailor’s expert eye. Though this is a one-woman show Hartstone inhabits her characters (male and female) much as Liz Taylor was supposed to have simply been Cleopatra while Richard Burton played at being Mark Anthony.

Hartstone is also possessed of a fine, evocative voice which conjures up the spirit of the age in sparkling speech and song. The movement is minimalist, the set perfectly scaled to allow Hartstone to ascend and descend from the ‘H’ with a minimum of fuss. You can honestly imagine that this is the staging Evie Edwards would have designed to best tell her story from.

The Girl Who Jumped off the Hollywood Sign is Fringe theatre at its best – profound without being maudlin, sassy, smart, and above all edgy. This is an iron fist of a script nestling in a velvet glove.

outstanding

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Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 24 August)

Visit the Assembly Roxy archive.

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

#JeSuis (Zoo Southside: 16-26th Aug: 20.30: 45 mins)

“Hugely powerful…all this show needs is an audience”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

#JeSuis isn’t just a stunning piece of contemporary dance from Aakash Odedra Company. It’s a galling political movement in response to the global media disparity in coverage of the growing number of displaced people worldwide. And what hits hardest in this performance is the sheer determination and resilience of a group desperate to have their voice heard.

On a basic level #JeSuis presents the hopeless waiting, the loneliness, danger, shaming and stigma of being a refugee, through a series cleverly woven scenes and images that are at once beautiful and brutal. The piece starts slow, as we see the performers wait for something, anything to happen, and when a grizzly authority figure enters and the phone rings, desperation boils over and violence erupts. The use of structural and architectural lighting in this section reflects the harsh rules and boundaries displaced people often find themselves within, adding an extra layer of discomfort as dancers are enclosed within small spaces of light, thrown away from the light, or have a spotlight shone directly in their faces.

The movements are frantic and jagged – as if each limb is under remote control of a six-year-old child on speed – and the quality signifies the alarming lack of control the individuals have over their situation. The imagery created is stark: we see dancers desperately attempt to move freely, to being physically wrapped in layers of cling film while they continue to fight, to the more aggressive restraining of an individual who reaches for the ever-present microphone to one side of the stage. But perhaps most powerful in the early part of the performance is an apparent sexual assault conducted by the authority figure, leaving his victim broken while the others can only look on.

Yet it’s not all darkness and depression – a sense of comradery builds between the group to over-throw their oppressor towards the second half, with rousing unison sequences and a role-reversal as they hold back the authority figure from achieving his own goals. The token use of sung and spoken word are a perfect complement to all the other ways the dancers attempt to express themselves throughout the piece, and it’s evident that something has to give. Yet even as the next chapter emerges at the show’s climax, it’s with a distinctly bitter-sweet sentiment, as the rigid unison once again feels like overbearing control of a different kind.

This performance of #JeSuis is a work in progress, with further development scheduled for the second half of the year, though from here it’s hard to see how much better it can get. From a theatrical perspective seeing some of the individual characters and journeys developed would help build a greater empathetic connection with their stories, otherwise all this show needs is an audience. Even as a work in progress this is a hugely powerful piece of contemporary dance, perhaps made all the more poignant given the fact it is unfinished, like many of the struggles faced by those it represents.

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 22 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

+3 Review: Oskar’s Amazing Adventure (Gilded Balloon Teviot: Until 27 Aug: 11.50: 40min)

“The highest praise I can think of is to jump up and down in my seat squealing ‘Again! Again!'”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

It’s the middle of a hard winter in Switzerland. The little house on the top of the mountain is snowbound. Oppressed with cabin fever, fun loving puppy Oskar runs off in search of new friends to play with.

The show is based on the picture book by celebrated children’s author Colin Granger. Colin is of course a part owner of Komedia Brighton, and (once upon a time) was the author of the Heinemann English Grammar (which is yet to be dramatised for the stage). All the original characters are present, including Oskar, his friend the Marmot, the hungry Fox, Grandma, the chickens, the other puppies. The only exception is Mrs Goat who lost her seat on the tour bus to Colin.

We enter to find an alpine backdrop hung from rustic timbers. In front is a canvas pyramid with three of the four sides painted with a particular scene from the narrative that is about to unfold. With the occasional turn of this pyramid by performer Natasha Granger, Oskar’s story is revealed. Not since the Pharaoh Khufu walked out of Dunbar and Sons onto Morningside Road, having just purchased the ultra deluxe funerary care package, has a pyramid been put to such effective use.

This production is a grace and flavour mansion giving Colin Granger’s charming narrative a home away from home. The grace is delivered by his daughter Natasha whose fluid movement melts in and out of the liquid lighting and soundscape. The flavour is unmistakably alpine – crisp, simple, elegant. The interplay of stagecraft and performance is balanced and nuanced. The puppetry (including some shadow play on one side of the pyramid) empowers rather than overpowers. The effect is hugely satisfying, whether this is your first ever show or simply your latest.

It’s a safe bet that the Children’s section of the Fringe guide is the growth area to watch and shows like Oskar’s are in the vanguard. A glance at the reviews on EdFringe.com reveals where that vanguard will encounter the sharpest slings and arrows. Audiences love this show (as they should). The “professionals” are noticeably less excited. Why would they be? It’s fairly obvious that they weren’t accompanied by a reliable preschooler.

You might have noticed that it’s really quite expensive to come to Edinburgh in August and this is true for pundits as well as for producers and punters. Bringing a kid along too (without the support of local grandparents in residence) is a big ask, but it must be better answered. As the children’s section of the Fringe guide grows, reviewers and their publishers need to be much better at reflecting the artistry and talent that shows intended for younger audiences are already delivering.

This was my own preschooler’s first ever live show and I am so massively grateful to Theatre Fideri Fidera for making it such a positive and memorable experience for us both. Oskar’s Adventure may not strike a jaded 20-something as particularly amazing, but for preschoolers first noticing the big wide world (and for those of us privileged to attend them on their journey) the perspective offered is just right. The highest praise I can think of is to jump up and down in my seat squealing “Again! Again!”

outstanding

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Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 23 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED