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Woodheaps and chopping blocks: talking to Leah Purcell, Leticia Cáceres and Stephen Curtis about The Drover’s Wife

This interview with some of the cast and crew of Belvoir Street Theatre’s 2016 production of The Drover’s Wife – including Goa-Gunggari-Wakka Wakka Murri writer and actor, Leah Purcell, director, Leticia Cáceres, and set designer, Stephen Curtis – was conducted via a series of emails, text messages, and transcribed phone conversations during 2018 and 2019. Inspired by my ongoing conversations with Leah’s manager and partner Bain Stewart, I have chosen to present these interviews as an overlapping Q&A session in order to capture the intensely collaborative nature of the production and bring together the various processes and values that informed the adaptation of this classic Australian text.

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Demelza Hall: Thank you Leah, Leticia, and Stephen for agreeing to talk with me about your award-winning theatrical adaptation of Henry Lawson’s short story The Drover’s Wife for Belvoir theatre.

The Drover’s Wife had a relatively short run at Sydney’s Belvoir, with only 33 shows, but it has had a huge impact on audiences, readers and critics alike and has won numerous awards and accolades. Why do you think people have responded so positively to your adaptation?

Leah Purcell: I think a lot of Australian theatre goers, a lot of Australian people, want to hear our national stories, you know, where they’re from and especially our legends of the mainstream, like those by Banjo Patterson and Henry Lawson. Not that I would say that I’m a fanatical reader of their works (although my mum was a fan of Henry Lawson, ‘the poor man’s poet’, and my father-in-law was a big fan of Banjo Patterson) but I think people are loyal to these narratives. But also, I had my producer’s hat on when it became time for me to sit down and write again – I thought about how I could get my biggest audience. Young people in school are still studying Henry Lawson as well as the older loyalists, I thought about how I could bring those people together with the people who are interested in me as a performer, I guess. I also try with my work to engage in bringing new people to the audience. I did this with Box the Pony, a lot of people came to see it, a lot of men with their girlfriends came, for example, but then fell in love with theatre because it was physical, because it was boxing, because it was funny, because it was harrowing, because they could relate to it in some way. So I’m all about trying to open that door up to keep audiences going. I also think that The Drover’s Wife’s tagline of ‘Tarantino meets Deadwood meets Henry Lawson’ made a lot of people go: ‘okay, that’s a play I think I’m going to be entertained and shocked by in some way’.

Leticia Cáceres: Leah’s vision proposed a fresh way of considering our shared past. She took a cherished work from the Australian canon and lovingly honoured it by asserting the drover’s wife as a character and applying two omitted aspects of this country’s history: Indigenous history (the last 200 years), and women’s history (also since settlement). The correlation between the two histories made the material familiar and it allows for a new way to understand the Indigenous struggle. The character of the drover’s wife allowed a mostly white audience to access their empathy for the Indigenous plight in a more immediate way. That is Leah’s genius: because the character of the drover’s wife is so pertinent and familiar, audiences were on her side from the get-go. It is a masterful post-colonial act.

Stephen Curtis: I would say that it is, quite simply, wonderful theatre. Leah is compelling, the material is incredibly poetic, but in a way that connects easily with us all. The horror genre is tantalisingly present, and although we know the acts of revenge do not right the deeper wrongs, we take genuine joy in them. And the production is universally strong – the storytelling and evocation of the world and rituals of inhabiting country are very powerfully evoked.

Demelza: Yes, your play has reached and touched so many people. How attuned were you all to this possibility during the production stages? Fiona Allon suggests, for example, that ‘narratives of national culture and identity’ are ‘salient site[s] for working through the ambiguities, ambivalences and repressions that adhere to any proposed model of nationhood or national ‘home’ (np). Was there a sense that the play was working through or re-educating people? And did it inform any of the production values?

Leticia: For me, this work was about truth. A truth that continues to be denied. In this instance, it was Leah’s truth, and Leah’s family’s truth, which, in turn, reflected the truth and experience of Aboriginal Australians. So, my job was to honour this and get out of its way. But my other job was to make it a great night in the theatre so people would be engrossed by this truth, and by the magic of theatre. So, the design team and I offered up a performance space where the actors and the audience both had to use their imagination to ‘fill in the gap’ and allow the visual and written poetry to grab hold and take them on a journey. This collective imagining that happened every night in the theatre was where we worked through important issues to do with place, identity and history.

Stephen: The act of theatre-making is always a ‘working through’ in this sense. The cast and production team always have to somehow come to grips with the material at hand, whatever it is. For me, personally, part of this working through was freeing the text from its naturalistic roots and responding to its poetic potential. The chopping block as a symbol of a pioneer culture, of rape of the environment – evoking those settler properties surrounded by the hacked stumps of trees – but also ironically the release of Yadaka, the Aboriginal prisoner whose neck irons are broken off with the same axe that felled the trees. This is an expression of the complexity and contradictory nature of nationhood.

Leah: It was not really an act of ‘working through’ for me, because if I was to think about that – about how the play might educate people – I wouldn’t write anything because I would go ‘who the hell am I to educate anyone?’ I don’t like using the word ‘education’, I like to say that ‘I’m bringing an understanding’, because everything I write comes from a truth-base at some point, you know? And I take creative licence and twist it for fictional and dramatic purposes but it’s always an opportunity to tell the stories that I was privileged enough to grow up hearing. So, I guess for me it’s just about bringing my personal stories to other people to experience and what they want to believe, or what they want to take away, that’s their business.

Director Leticia Caceres and Actor Leah Purcell – The Drover’s Wife play rehearsals (Aug 2016). Image copyright: Brett Boardman, Belvoir Street Theatre

Director Leticia Caceres and Actor Leah Purcell – The Drover’s Wife play rehearsals (Aug 2016). Image copyright: Brett Boardman, Belvoir Street Theatre

Demelza: Works of adaptation are renowned for ‘talking back’ to a text while, at the same time, opening up new spaces and establishing new dialogues. Leah, in your interview with Michael Adams for Australian Author you eluded to how your reimagining of Lawson’s short story contributes to your contemporary, or personal, Dreaming. Could you talk about this a bit more?

Leah: Yes, absolutely. Box the Pony, for example, is part of my Dreaming, me and you having this conversation now is a part of my Dreaming, you are taking another part of my Dreaming through your interpretation and the sharing of it. The sharing of culture and the engagement with culture is different to what it was 120,000 years ago, you know, and what it will be tomorrow. But if I can, at least, in engage in what I do and show that I am a storyteller from ancient roots, then I can continue something. We can’t continue our language in most places, we can’t continue our dance in most places, we can’t have connection to Country in most parts of the country, but what no one can take from us is our stories – what has orally been given to us. So, what we have tried to keep, to sustain, is our storytelling and we are adding that storytelling to our Dreaming, to our life’s journey. I’m lucky that I’m someone that can express that through my art form. Other people just live their lives, you know? Take Bain’s mob, for example. Bain’s got a cousin who’s a mad hunter so he’s ‘the hunter’, he’s ‘the land man’. There’s another cousin that’s a dancer, so he’s ‘the song and dance man’. And when they turn around and look at Bain they go, well, you’re ‘the business man’ because you carry your Dreaming in your briefcase. Everyone has a place; you don’t feel inadequate.

So, if I can bring my contemporary Dreaming in a form that can touch and move and help bring about understanding, then I’m doing my bit for my mother and my grandmother who never had voices, and my grandfather and his mother that never had voices and were considered sub-human. I’d be doing an injustice if I stayed quiet.

Demelza: I am really interested in how these ideas were also conveyed in the play via setting. In Lawson’s short story, for example, the harsh bush environment acts as a further antagonist to the wife while in your play the land is, for the most part, treated more lovingly; rendered or, perhaps more appropriately, returned to a site of Country. How was this sense of land evoked in the stage performance?

Leah: It can be hard to evoke the land when you are on a stage, but I hoped through reading the program the audience would know where the setting was. You want your audience to visualise where you are, so I also hoped through some of the dialogue that they could draw their pictures, that they knew it was the Snowy Mountains. I fell in love with that landscape when I did Jindabyne up there and I said to Bain when we went for a walk up to Mount Kosciusko one day ‘we don’t utilise this mountain enough, we need to do something’. And I said, ‘I’m going to do Drover’s Wife and I’m just putting that out there on Country because I want to come back here to do it’ and that was in 2006, you know, I just put it out there. But I guess the biggest help to the audience was the tree that we had on stage. We actually got a tree from out that way, though I don’t think it was a Snow Gum. It was a sick tree, we didn’t chop it down, it was scheduled to be lopped so we grabbed it and we gave thanks for the tree. We tried to put in the Snow Gum element, but I think it was more to do, hopefully, with my writing and the description of where we were. That’s the great thing about stage, you’ve got to use your own imagination. And there was lighting and the colours. We had, for example, a canvas sheet that was painted the colours of the Snow Gum. When the light hit the cream of the canvas, with silvers and browns through it, it gave the tone of the Snow Gum and when you looked at it, it also became the mountain ridges.

To answer your question, in short, it was through my description of landscape, through my descriptions of Yadaka’s journey, or when the Peddler or the Swagman spoke of the granges and the township ­– that was the main way we represented the land.

Stephen: I think it is also important to recognise that in the play, the land was actually only a ‘returned country’ at the end of the performance, when the site of the rape, murder, and violence is swept away and the falling snow evokes a very different sense of place. For most of the play the ‘harsh bush environment’ is very present – the skeleton of a felled tree is stretched like a corpse along one side of the theatre space.

Leticia: I tried to support Leah’s evocative writing through the choices we made in the design. From the fallen tree, which distilled the notion of a colonised and violated landscape, to the choice of light earth that covered the stage and conjured up the erosion of the earth, to the choice of costumes that were covered in mud and dirt and stained with the evidence of hard work. But we also relied on lighting and music to evoke the landscape. For example, lighting was filtered through very specific gobos that allowed for the design to be broken up, to create textures over the stage, as if filtered through trees. Sound provided us with native birds, and insects which were local to the area. Of course, sometimes lighting and sound was used very naturalistically to anchor us in place and time, other times, it was used more poetically, to create grotesque shadows, or to underscore and amplify moments of tension.

Demelza: It sounds just amazing and quite immersive in terms of the way it taps into a sense of place and space that is distinctly Australian. I am also really interested in how your adaptation reconfigures tropes that tend to accompany notions of ‘home’ and/or ‘belonging’ in Australia. For example, I’ve always read the hollow woodheap as the central metaphor in Lawson’s short story and, for me, it is the key evocation of the wife’s and, more broadly, settler Australians’, innate un-belonging. The space of the hollow woodheap is further unsettled in your adaptation, Leah, can you talk about how you imagined this site when you were writing the play?

Leah: For me, the woodheap’s real because I’m a girl from the bush. We had a combustion stove, right up until the early 70s, so we had a woodheap. It was a place of neatness. My mother swept the ground there. It had to be stacked properly, otherwise, as my mother would say, ‘snakes will get in under there’. So my mother would demand we had a perfectly stacked woodheap. I remember splitting logs and running out, getting wood for the fire, stacking it under the steps in the back. It would be neat so nothing would get under, because otherwise you’d get bit and then you got issues. It was very much a real thing; it was the thing that sustained us. It gave us hot water, it gave us a place to cook meals on, and it gave us warmth.

Demelza: So, would you say that the site, or space, is integral to creating and sustaining a meaningful sense of home, then?

Leah: Yes, it was a life force. It was our home. But yes, to return to your question, when I was writing the play I did a bit of research about how Henry said it was a black man who stacked the woodheap hollow. Now, to stack a woodheap hollow, that’s a mongrel’s act because snakes could get in under and you put your hand in there and you’re bit. Whether it was a black man, in truth, that stacked it hollow – which one paper on Lawson’s story suggests – I decided that, being an Aboriginal writer, I’m going to make the black man the hero.

Demelza: What did putting the drover in the woodheap mean to you, Leah? Was it like burying him in a shallow grave?

Leah: Yes, in my head, the wood was low and he was placed in a softer part of the ground where you could dig a bit of a hole and drop him in it and stack your wood on top. So you’re not too concerned [about being caught] because people might just think it is more wood or something. But, of course, people that know the land would know you don’t have uneven ground because then you can’t stack it right, and if you can’t stack it right, well, then you’ve got rodents getting in under and you’re in danger. So, it was convenient for Molly [the drover’s wife] to put him under there because she was in a fit of despair. She was desperate. He was attempting to kill her because she had shamed him. And it was either her, or the kids. She was going to die or he was going to die. She knows what it’s like to not have a mother’s love. So she’s got to do what she’s got to do for her children. She had to stand her ground.

Demelza: What did the space of the woodheap signify for you in the production and performance of the play, Leticia? And do you think that repositioning the woodheap as a space of settler entombment inspires a wider reconsideration of how Australians make themselves at home on the land?

Leticia: For me, the woodheap, like the chopping block which was placed in the centre of the playing space, were sites of violence. They signified for me the way White Australia claimed and brutalised the land, and all those who were here before them. We used the chopping block in many different ways: the swaggy first claimed the space by sitting on it and then attempting to seduce/rape the drover’s wife, the drover’s wife used it to release Yadaka from his neck clamp on it, Yadaka sat on it and sharpened the axe, and the drover’s men at the end of the play danced and ridiculed indigenous culture on it, while playing with the spears that Yadaka had made for Danny.

Demelza: How was the actual space of the woodheap evoked in the stage production and the show’s sets?

Leticia: The woodheap was suggested. The audience was asked to imagine it, beyond them. The actors would move through the vomitorium, and out to it. Yadaka and Danny (Molly’s son) would traverse the space with chopped up wood, to carry it to the woodheap.  They could ‘see it’ from stage.  It had a strong foreboding presence. We also put speakers in the vom which sent out the sound of Yadaka chopping away and stacking the wood heap.

Stephen: Yes, it was a design exploration that Leticia and I had together – whether the woodheap should be onstage or not. Like you, Demelza, I was drawn to its expressive presence, however the more we worked with the flow of action from one moment to the next, the clearer it became that the woodheap could not be onstage. For example, Yadaka is hanged next to the woodheap, and there was no way we were going to expose the audience to that image.

Leah: Yeah, I even wrote a version where the woodheap was on stage, but I think you got more out of the audience when they could imagine what that mound might look like. So with direction, when I had to show Yadaka where his boots were, he would go down the vom and I would be looking into the audience (we all picked a chair [in the audience] and made it our woodheap), and one night someone turned around and looked behind them as if to go ‘oh fuck, am I on it?’ So the audience became very invested and I think that’s the magic of theatre, it leaves things up to the audience’s imagination.

Demelza: The chopping of wood seems to be an integral part of the play’s soundscape. What I found really interesting, however, was that the sense of ‘home maintenance’ the sound implies is completely unsettled by the action of the play itself. Could you comment on this at all?

Leticia: The sound of chopping wood, which was performed by Yadaka, was ‘home maintenance’ in that it reinforced their toil to survive, and gave historical context. But it also heightened the sense of violence. We integrated the axe into many scenes. It was a real, working axe, so we could come down with force on the chopping block on the centre of the space, we came close to the audience with it, it became an extremely visceral prop.

Stephen: We investigated, briefly, having a double of the axe – with a fake blade that could be used to chop into the swaggie’s leg in the first fight – but the axe as a real object was much more expressive. We just learned to keep away from the sharp bit.

The Drover’s Wife – production still. Image copyright: Brett Boardman, Belvoir Street Theatre

Leah: Yeah, the axe was really sharp and we were inches from people’s noses during the fight scene! Three times in the first couple of minutes of the play we slammed it onto that woodheap and then, at the very end, when I’m defending myself with it and I know I can’t defeat these men, I slam it in and sparks would come from the chopping block; it was a proper heavy piece! But that’s what I like to do [when I perform] I’m on the brink of the stage; I want to spit on the audience, I want to snot on them, I want to cry on them. You come to the theatre to be moved and my fourth wall is always at the back of the theatre.

Demelza: Did the sound of chopping wood, or the axe hitting the chopping block, constitute the beats that are scripted throughout the play?

Leah: The beats were, generally, scripted for the actors, to register pauses and to add more weight to what was to come. One time we used the sound of chopping – as a melodic, or beat – was during the very harrowing scene when Molly, Danny, and Yadaka put the baby in the little coffin and I would sing Black is The Colour. As I sang Yadaka would tap six nails into the coffin. So, the chopping block was used in that, to create that beat, and it was deliberately done to psychologically move the audience; it was a beautiful moment of people sharing loss that everyone could relate to.

Stephen: There were so many rhythmical devices – ‘beats’ on this production. The sound of chopping was one of these, but the movement of feet in dust, sweeping, the passage from day into dusk, the circular action around the chopping block were also significant.

Demelza: Another key symbol in Lawson’s original is, of course, the space of the hut. I noticed when reading your script, for example, that Molly is often outside the hut, unlike Lawson’s version wherein which the wife inhabits the domestic space like it’s a citadel. Many adaptations centralise this space, how did you imagine it in your production?

Leticia: Stephen stated it very clearly in our design meetings: ‘all you need to tell this story is a Martini Henry rifle’. This, effectively, proved to be true. The drover’s wife must remain vigilant outside her hut, in order to protect herself from snakes, which are actually the white men who keep showing up on her property.  She is ineffectual inside her hut. I was adamant that the hut should feel flimsy and showcase her precarious position. It made sense to have the hut represented by nothing more than a calico sheet. It made her incredibly exposed and defenceless at all times.

Leah: Originally, in my head, I saw a hut and wanted a hut. Then, of course you have to hand it over to your director and you hand it over to your designer, and Leticia and Stephen wanted a surreal aspect to it, so I said well as long as I can come in and out of something that gives form to a front door then I don’t care what it is. And it was amazing. As Leticia says, it was a very vulnerable thing – you could go through it and anyone could rip it down – so it put her [the wife] in the most vulnerable situation. Especially, when the way we designed it meant that the men could come at it from all angles of Belvoir. At the end, for instance, Robert Parsons – because he’s a mate of Joe’s [the drover] – he comes through the back door, so he comes through the house and cuts right through everything that’s Molly’s. He came through the house and demanded the space, which was her higher ground. It really emphasised his presence, he had a huge presence, and everyone in the audience just hissed and went, ‘Oh my God, no’. People were just going, ‘No, no, no’ because they knew what that meant; this man had claimed this area.

Demelza: Do you feel, then, that the space of house, as a location of home, is ultimately rejected in the play? And that, rather than having the wife continue to ‘haunt’ this domestic environment, the play concludes with the possibility that Country will, instead, become the primary location of home and shelter that Molly and her family need?

Leticia: I don’t think the space of house is necessarily rejected … I think colonisation is rejected, the white system that had cheated Molly is rejected, the isolation, the lack of community, the constant threat of men who want to claim her home and her body is rejected. The myth of the white settler as the hero is rejected. Instead, a different world view is on offer: community, ancient knowledge, survival, and possibly even, revolution. When the drover’s wife finally picks herself up off the floor to reclaim her stolen children, when she decides to reconnect with her people and join the Indigenous struggle, you feel a Warrior has truly come into her own. She may not survive as she steps out to find her people, but the courage to fight for what is hers – which is her children, her clan – embodies the true meaning of ‘home’.  The rejection of property for something bigger, the true possibility of what ‘home’ means, the relationship to kinship, to clan, to children, to survival, has been interpreted as a communist idea, and has cost many Indigenous people their lives around the world. The Indigenous notion of ‘home’ is radical because it is anti-capitalist and to Western ideologies and values based on accumulation of property and appropriation of women and children this notion is profoundly dangerous.

Leah: Yes, the house is not so much abandoned, it’s just part of a moving on. The hut is just a material thing. It was something that had – for the purpose of the twenty-odd years she was married and had children – given her stability but, at the end of the day, it’s just a material thing that she stuck together with mud and old journals. And when she cleared the stage of it – when I ripped back the curtain and we had provisions there – it’s about her going to reclaim her truth.

Stephen: When, at the end of the play, Leah sweeps aside the curtain that we had used to evoke the hut, it is a very Brechtian epic gesture. As Leticia says, she swept away the landscape of colonialisation and visually took us into her country.

Demelza: So, she’s turning towards her future with a sense of hope?

Leah: Yes. It’s about hope. When she finds her truth, she strips herself bare of everything her father gave her. She’s going to have a family, an extended family that she’s never known, because it was just always her and her Da and he deliberately kept her away because she had a touch of the tar brush, you know, he kept her away to keep her safe. But now she knows that her children have a bigger family and absolutely it’s about hope. If I didn’t give hope people would not have been satisfied, because of the brutality in the play and because they were all rooting for her.

Demelza: How was the site of the cave as a space of future hope and potential evoked, then, in the production?

Leah: The cave was always just spoken about. It was evoked in the directions of the details of how to get there. Yadaka spoke about it, Molly spoke about it, Danny was given the information about it as a place of hope, because in the spring there’s going to be people there; people that can give him love, stability, protection. The cave was also used to say, well, we do know how to look after our own, and speak to the children being taken and put in foster homes but not with Aboriginal people. We should, at least, try to house children with family before putting them elsewhere, you know, so the cave was just about paying homage to that. It was also about paying respects to my grandmother and my great grandmother who were part of the Stolen Generations. So, the cave gave hope, but there was no imagery that came up to represent it. It was just verbal and people in the audience were rooting for those kids to get there but, in the play, they don’t find out if they make it.

Leticia: We took special care in the writing to set the cave up in performance. It was evoked in the way the drover’s wife absorbed the information about its whereabouts and in the way Yadaka delivered that information, with intention and determination. When it came time to go to the cave, we performed the moment when they are about to set off, as far up stage as we could go (almost with their backs to the wall). This was a conscious choice as it gave the impression of a filmic wide shot – it made the actors looks small in a vast landscape. It made the task of leaving their land and setting out alone, feel like a huge undertaking, as it would have been. But to see the drover’s Wife and her son dressed in pelts and rugs, holding spears, braving the snow and the vast unknown, was epic and inspiring. It was a tribute to Warriors, both men and women, who have undergone these powerful undertakings and have survived.

Demelza: Finally, the script begins with an epigraph from Lawson that states: ‘it is about time that our children were taught a little more about their country for shame’s sake’. I saw on YouTube that a number of school groups attended the play and that Q&A sessions sometimes followed performances. How did these audiences respond to your production? And, what kinds of questions were asked?

Leticia: I do remember, specifically, sitting next to a Maori woman after a show who was struck dumb by what she had seen. Her body was stiff, and her eyes were filled with tears. When she finally composed herself and was able to articulate what she’d experienced, all she could really say was ‘thank you’. In that moment, I understood that the pain of colonisation had been given a shape, a body, a female body, and a language through which we could bear witness to the past. And not just this country’s past, but the past of many colonised countries in the world, including New Zealand. That’s the power of this work.

Leah: The one that stood out for me was when one audience member said ‘I thought I knew a fair bit about, Indigenous Australian histories but I’m going to have to go and reassess how I see our past’. And I said, ‘brilliant, I’ve done my job’. One in every audience, that’s what you hope for. I used my great-grandfather’s diaries and diaries of ‘superiors’ and government officials when I was writing the play, and every time we did a Q&A I would tell the participants that I used them word verbatim for the characters of the Peddler and Robert Parson – I would say ‘so, don’t debate me, I’m not making that shit up, what came out of their mouths was taken from the diaries’ and fifty hands would go down. But, yeah, it was that one kid that said, ‘I need to reassess how I look at our history of Australia’, that made me say ‘mate, my job’s done’.

I want people to come to the theatre to be moved and if I can highlight, or bring an understanding to my people’s plight and past histories that are still being denied, then that’s all I’ve set out to do.

 

Works cited

Adams, Michael. ‘Leah Purcell: Straight Shooter’. Australian Author 49.2 (2017).
Allon, Fiona. ‘Boundary Anxieties: Between Borders and Belongings’. Borderlands 1.2 (2002).
Purcell, Leah. The Drover’s Wife. Currency Press: Sydney, 2016.

 

Image: The Drover’s Wife – production still. Photo by Brett Boardman, courtesy of Belvoir Street Theatre.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Dr Demelza Hall is researcher in the field of literary and cultural studies and has worked as sessional lecturer and tutor at Federation University Australia since 2009. Demelza has published in a wide variety literary journals both in Australia and overseas and her current research, The Drover’s Wife Reading Project, recently attracted a seed funding grant from the Association for the Study of Australian Literature (ASAL). More information about The Drover’s Reading Wife Project, including how to get involved, can be found at: demelzahall.com.au

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