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January 22, 2012

Coriolanus @ The Broadway Cinema, Nottingham

The best thing about the poster for Ralph Fiennes's new film of Coriolanus (and his directorial debut) is the contrast between the streams of red blood and those ice-cold eyes. In a single image we see the entire film - a steady, chilling gaze framed by horrific images and the messy reality of war.

Coriolanus poster

For those of us who saw it, it's impossible to avoid comparisons with Toneelgroep Amsterdam's Roman Tragedies, which similarly updated Coriolanus to the boardrooms and corridors of power, and turned the play into a critique of media involvement in politics and the machinations of state. Fiennes's movie takes the concept but integrates it deeply into a setting that evokes the Yugoslav wars and Arab Spring (fortuitously, as filming had been mostly completed by the middle of last year). The blurring between the fictional world of "A Place Calling Itself Rome" and the real world was most apparent in the appearance of Jon Snow, reporting from the comfortable sofas of the Fidelius News network and grilling guests about the political ambitions of Caius Martius.

Televisions featured throughout, from the opening speeches of Menenius listened to by a fuming protest cell to the carefully staged presentation of Martius to the consulate. In the marketplace, surrounded by Eastern European stallkeepers, Martius blinked in the glare of a dozen cameraphones; and a microphone damningly picked up his hissed complaints to Brian Cox's Menenius in the senate room. For his final aborted apology, senators James Nesbitt and Paul Jesson convened a tacky TV studio set-up, and riled up the crowds to call for his banishment with chants of "It shall be so!" More movingly, Virgilia (an excellent Jessica Chastain) twitched uncomfortably in front of lagging news reports of the fighting in Corioles while her son heedlessly shot cans with an airgun outside.

Fiennes's Martius was ill at ease in this constantly recorded world. In the opening sequence, a mob waving protest banners advanced on Rome's central grain store, and he faced down protesters while snarling at the watching cameras, which kept rolling as the riot police advanced. The messiness of adhoc recording translated to the excellent camerawork, particularly as Martius lashed out at the tribunes, pushing one to the floor while police attempted to keep a roaring mob at bay. In the chaos, the camera came detached, focusing on details - an eye, a phone, a hand, a slogan - as Menenius finally lost control of the situation.

The gritty feel showcased a stunning environment. As a grizzled Martius left Rome for banishment, he marched through wartorn ruins and bleak countryside, a world of roads that stretched to nowhere and roaming wild dogs. Yet emerging at Antium, a Mediterranean coastal town, we saw the peaceful beauty of the country desolated elsewhere by fighting. The soldiers of both armies were rowdy skinheads, tattooing each other and drinking to their respective iconic leaders. As unthinking as the masses incited by the tribunes, the soldiers were fiercely loyal to whoever commanded them, transferring as easily to Coriolanus as they did back to Lartius in the final moments.

The war scenes were expertly shot, making good sense of the text as Martius ran off alone after an explosion to wreak havoc. A shocking sequence saw him touring a burnt out apartment block, kicking down doors (a nod was made here to the old man who gave Shakespeare's hero assistance, as one elderly man offered a bottle of water from his sofa) and shooting civilians, whose bodies we were reminded of throughout. Aufidius (Gerard Butler) himself found the bodies of his wife and children left bleeding in a car following the fall of Corioles. Yet while this was a war conducted primarily with bombs and guns, the cultish followings of both leaders allowed them to strip themselves of their heavy weaponry when finally meeting and engage in a knife fight, the two holding each other in a death embrace that found more intimacy than anything else in this cold environment.

Crucially, Fiennes only laughed in the company of his soldiers. With his mother, the excellent Vanessa Redgrave, he could only humble himself, occasionally crying out in frustration at the constricting nature of their relationship. Yet Virgilia and Volumnia made an impressive team, whether tussling with the tribunes after Martius's banishment or kneeling together before Martius's army. In an extended and fantastically played scene, Virgilia's steady gaze and Volumnia's no-nonsense appeals finally reduced the soldier to tears, helped by a genuinely surprising intervention from his otherwise silent son. Yet even more moving was Cox's Menenius, tasked with the impossible. Facing Martius at night, he was stunned to be cut off by his former friend, and looked around the rest of the Volscian army before leaving, silently. In a short sequence following, he sat by a canal and took of his watch. Quietly, he slit his wrist and bled to death, another neglected body lying alone at the side of the road.

There was great support from John Kani as Cominius and a fine group of morally ambivalent rebels, but this was ultimately Fiennes and Butler's show. As Aufidius shaved Martius's head, his hand lingered on his skull, reminding us of his deeply conflicted relationship with his new ally. Fittingly, the final scene played out not in the Volscian camp, but at a roadside checkpoint. Surrounded by Aufidius's men, Martius killed two before finally falling into Aufidius's arms. As the latter's dagger slipped into Martius, the two men embraced more tightly than ever before, lowering themselves together to the ground. There was no final eulogy or second thought from Aufidius - just the final image of Coriolanus's body, thrown onto a bare platform. This was raw, gripping Shakespeare for the twenty-first century, and an impressive turn from Fiennes both in front of and behind the camera.

November 21, 2009

Roman Tragedies (Toneelgroep Amsterdam) @ The Barbican

Writing about web page

A six hour version of Shakespeare's Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra stitched together. With no interval. In promenade. In Dutch with surtitles. It's been a while since I've subjected myself to a Shakespearean endurance test (The Histories), and this was the kind of hardcore event which doesn't come around very often. Happily, Toneelgroep Amsterdam's first visit to the UK in ten years was one to be enjoyed rather than endured, an intelligent and exciting reworking of these three plays that forced one to confront our changing attitudes to the stories that matter.

It's a rather difficult event to review, as everyone who went would have had an entirely different experience. For the majority of the afternoon/evening, audience members were invited to wander freely around the auditorium and onto the stage, watching the action from any number of vantage points. Thus, while it was possible to watch the production 'normally' from the auditorium, most of us spent long periods promenading among the actors.

The stage and set-up require some explanation. These were the corridors of power, like the back rooms at the UN. Comfortable sofas, pot plants and coffee tables were complemented by coffee bars, a running buffet, an internet cafe and newspaper stands, among which both cast and audience spent their evenings. We were actively encouraged to check our e-mail, to grab a paper, to sit down with a meal or a glass of wine; there were no breaks among which we might do so communally, and events were continuous apart from short breaks for scene changes. We were not expected to 'watch' everything that happened; rather, we were encouraged to take control over our own experience, to choose what we wanted to watch.

Almost all of the action was filmed by a variety of fixed and mobile cameras, the political events being edited live for TV. Some reports were delivered by 'anchors' from a newsdesk at the back of the stage, others were staged for television such as a live debate between Coriolanus, Menenius and the Tribunes, or Brutus and Antony's orations, while other action was caught on handhold cameras with the characters apparently unaware. This filmed footage was screened both above the stage for those in the auditorium (essential on a deep stage with many compartmentalised seating areas, where the action wasn't always visible), and onto a number of televisions grouped around the stage. It was thus possible to select a sofa and essentially sit watching television for the evening, enjoying politics as mediated by the television cameras.

The result of all this was to recast the events of ancient Rome as modern day news events, with the audience placing a similar kind of value on them. While many of the audience deliberately ensured they made their way back to the auditorium for the 'live' experience of Brutus and Antony's addresses to the people, for example, I caught the whole thing on television. In the corner of my eye, meanwhile, another screen showed clips of Barack Obama giving speeches, instantly recasting what I was watching as a worldwide broadcast, an intensely intimate, yet live, television event that communicated personally what was experienced massively by the audience in the auditorium.

The cameras were used to great effect throughout, highlighting tiny details that could not have been communicated without them: the intense eyes of Coriolanus as he hid his face from his mother; the frozen scream of Cleopatra as she prepared to send word of her death to Antony; the hidden expressions of Portia as she buried her face in her pillow. The cast were liberated to perform in a variety of keys; both grandstanding performances to the seated audience, and 'private' moments that the camera took responsibility for distributing. It also allowed for more virtuoso effects: the ghost of Caesar, for example, was superimposed only on the broadcast picture, with the live Brutus talking to an empty chair; and Enobarbus' flight from his own guilt took him out of the Barbican and into the car-park, where his screams caused some consternation to the catering staff on a cigarette break, the whole thing captured on the roving camera and relayed back to the auditorium.

The production was insistent on displaying to us history in its many and varied forms, in keeping with the idea of this history as a real and living one, rather than one author's idea of the past. Thus, while Shakespeare's action shaped the body of the plot, a ticker-tape reel countered the stage story with running commentary on the 'real' history, with dates of battles and deaths, explanations of the political shifts and roles of various officials, and further details that Shakespeare ignored in the plays. As the play ended, a long list of questions: "Is the ideal of democracy worth the sacrifice of an individual?" "Can tyranny be justified?" etc. scrolled across the screen, asking us to consider history as a battle of ideologies. Other screens displayed relevant newsreels throughout, whether accompanying the campaign against Aufidius with footage of the Afghan war or displaying the Olympics while Caesar's Rome celebrated the Lupercal, imagining history as a series of events endlessly repeated. To complicate matters even further, the news ticker also displayed information such as "150 minutes until Julius Caesar's death" for the key characters, emphasising the inevitability of history: the interest here was not in what happens, but in how we get there.

In director Ivo van Hove's Rome, history became something that was created privately and domestically rather than publicly. All scenes which gave the masses a voice were cut, and increasingly the focus of events was narrowed and humanised. Thus, Coriolanus was fragmented and heavily cut. The Tribunes emerged from the audience, speaking ostensibly on our behalf though far more obviously for themselves. The longest, core scene was performed as a press conference, with a chafing Coriolanus (Fedja van Huet) soothed by Menenius at one end of the table and attacked by Sicinius and Brutus at the other for disrespect to the people. In between the two groups sat Cominius and a Senator, attempting to maintain order over the physical fights which continually erupted, the overturned chairs and angry threats of an impassioned political debate that resulted, ultimately, in Coriolanus' banishment. These public scenes were contrasted with the dominant Fried Pittoors as Volumnia, who held state in a raised seated section from which she rarely moved. To her, in this private setting, flocked senators, rulers and her son, and it was in her presence that the real decisions were made. Pittoors' commanding presence made her plea to Coriolanus, a fixed bow from the waist from which she refused to raise herself, all the more compelling. van Huet's performance, meanwhile, turned the story of Coriolanus into one of a reluctant public figure, a hero forced to play a game he does not understand and with which he bore no patience. As he agonised over his decision to sack Rome, the cameras captured a haunted, confused gaze which spoke of a man completely lost.

Julius Caesar, for my money the best part of the production, gave a fuller text which happily trimmed the final scenes mercilessly, turning the play into a lean and thrilling descent into chaos. The only real public scene here was one of the production's highlights; Brutus first addressing the audience from a podium in a commanding performance, before Antony's far more informal engagement. An accident had confined actor Hans Kesting to a wheelchair, but this only made him the more compelling: as he rolled around the stage with surprising speed and agility, Antony's apparent disability only belied the danger he posed. Rolling around to the front of a podium he could not see over, and forcing the fixed state camera to yield to a handheld, unmediated broadcast, Antony addressed himself to the camera as much as the crowd, pulling out an image of Caesar and scrawling over it with red pen as he described the wounds. As he spoke, the conspirators who stood in a line behind him slowly sidled away and made their exit, whispering in a corner until an enraged Antony wheeled and made a beeline straight for Brutus, onto whom he launched himself in an attempt to throttle the murderer. In the absence of a performed crowd for Antony to play to, Kesting conveyed the power of revolution in words that demonstrated the power of the camera to turn a close-up into a seismic shift in world order.

Several characters were recast as female, as part of van Hove's mission to turn the events into a relatively realistic reflection of contemporary politics. Octavius and Cassius were both women, and this made for a fascinating dynamic between Renee Fokker's Cassius and Roeland Fernhout's Brutus. Cassius here became a powerful yet frustrated politician, unable to enact events on her own terms and reliant on Brutus for the necessary support to carry through her actions. Fernhout's reflective Brutus was matched for power by her sheer determination, and the two of them were intimidating when together, and terrifying when opposed. As the two of them quarrelled in a dim office, late at night, Brutus was here rendered far from stoic; a tired and emotional man with the weight of the world on his shoulders who screamed defiance at Cassius' questioning of his commands. The relative equality of the two was revealed in an almost tender farewell as the two parted for the last time.

Antony and Cleopatra cranked up the intensity and domesticity a further notch, with a comparatively full text that ran to two and a half hours by itself. Split into two halves, and with the audience forced to return to the auditorium for the second half, this was the part of the play that we were required to watch, to experience as a unified group without the distractions offered on stage. For this world, presided over by Chris Nietvelt's Cleopatra and Marieke Heebink's highly-sexualised Charmian, politics moved into the bedroom. Charmian ran Cleopatra's court with a disturbing combination of seduction (especially of other women) and devil-may-care pragmatism; as they waited for Octavius to arrive, she marched for a champagne bottle as if it was a necessary weapon. Hadewych Minis's Octavius offered a stark contrast, her white shirt and tie belying a puritanical and sparse personality that accepted events with a sense of inevitably and necessity. Upon giving away Octavia, she kissed her sister tenderly, then with increased passion. This one moment of emotional urgency was instantly cut into by Charmian's distant cries for "Music!" before, to the eruption of the Red Hot Chili Peppers onto the video screens, the scene cut to a wild orgy in Egypt as Cleopatra and her ladies thrashed about on the floor to the loud rock tunes.

The final scenes, captured closely by the cameras, were played out in full as Cleopatra and her ladies followed the deaths of Antony and prepared themselves for the inevitable. Centrally in the stage was an area into which, almost superstitiously, audience members were instructed not to go. Between two glass screens stood an empty space which symbolised death; every time a character was murdered or committed suicide, they moved to that space and lay down on a trolley, and an overhead snapshot of their 'body' was taken and displayed, frozen, on the video screens. As this space increasingly became the focus, the characters were uncontrollably drawn to it, surrounding Antony's body which lay splayed out. As the space became laden with bodies, Octavia sent first aid teams to resuscitate the fallen, but to no avail. The history of Rome, with all its scale and worldwide ramificaitons, ultimately ended up figured in the four dead bodies that filled this empty space.

History was too big for this production, just as the production was too big for this review. This was, perhaps, the production's greatest strength - its recognition that history is best realised through the all-too-human stories of individuals, through the representative rather than the comprehensive. In this, the production was possibly the most Shakespearean history I've yet seen. There's far more that could have been discussed: the wonderful chaotic drumming that stood for the various wars; the hysterically floozy Casca; the tenderness of the mirrored Caesar/Calphurnia and Brutus/Portia scenes; the homely picture of Antony lying across Octavia's lap and her disgraced return to Rome; the traumatic effect that Coriolanus' final fall had on Aufidius. Perhaps it's enough to say that this was the only production this year to which I've yet given a standing ovation. A beautifully performed, expertly produced and deeply provoking reading of the Roman histories which really demands repeat experiences.

November 13, 2009

Coriolanus: The Movie

Not really news, because there's very little to report, but the casting information available so far about this new movie of Coriolanus is pretty tantalising.....

April 30, 2007

Coriolanus @ The Barbican Theatre

I’d never been to the Barbican before Friday night, and I have to say I was incredibly impressed. It’s enormous and beautiful and very much the kind of venue that gets me excited about theatre, life and all the possibility there is. Needless to say I picked up several events guides and am already looking forward to my next visit in June for Cheek By Jowl’s ‘Cymbeline’.

However, as much as I was enjoying being a tourist, I was there for a purpose- the Ninagawa Company, who presented their ‘Titus Andronicus’ in the Complete Works Festival, were performing ‘Coriolanus’, the sixteenth in their epic attempt to produce every single Shakespeare play, which has so far taken eighteen years.

This, as ever with Ninagawa, was theatre-making on an epic scale. A cast of around 40, with enormous mirrors around the stage stretching this number to infinity, made for tremendous crowd and fight scenes that showed off Ninagawa’s mastery of spectacle. The set, an enormous flight of stone steps filling almost the entire stage, made for an impressive impact, with actors flying up or tumbling down, jumping around each other, running about and creating superb visual images. For other scenes, also, the sheer height of the set made for fantastic impressions- Coriolanus’ slow ascent to his mother as she convinced him to go and show humility and descent to her level after she begged forgiveness were both given great dramatic weight by the change in height.

The company featured some actors who are highly acclaimed in their home country, which led to some odd (to an English audience) billings- Virgilia, considering her almost tacit role, was among the top four billed actors, and Sicinius was billed as one of the main six while Brutus took his bows with the supporting cast, which is very unusual for an English audience used to the tribunes acting as a pair. The performances were solid though, in particular Kotaro Yoshida (who played the title role in ‘Titus’) as a strong and active Menenius and Kayoko Shiraishi as an upright Volumnia, who created great effect by completely prostrating herself before her son in the begging scene.

My main gripe with the play lay in Toshiaki Karasawa’s Coriolanus. A relatively slight actor, he showed his power through an agile fighting style and good vocal and emotional range, and he stood out in every scene he appeared in. However, each of his scenes felt as if it was played for individual effect. I didn’t feel a through-line with Coriolanus- in one scene he was arrogant, in another misunderstood, in one heroic, in another brutal. He played each scene to full effect, but those effects added up to a somewhat muddled portrayal of Coriolanus which didn’t really explain what the character’s flaws were or why he was so hated. Similarly, the relationship between himself and Aufidius seemed misunderstood- whereas Gregory Doran’s production took the homoeroticism to crude extremes, this production (deliberately or ignorantly) ignored that slant completely, and even the actor playing Aufidius admitted in the programme that he struggled to understand his character’s attitude towards Coriolanus.

Long-time readers may recall that I had a slightly ambivalent reaction to Ninagawa’s ‘Titus’, and I had the same reaction here, though I feel slightly better able to articulate it here. This was a production that was mechanically excellent- it hit the right buttons, it looked phenomenal, the performances were very good, the design was spectacular and the action was well directed. But it lacked heart. This, along with ‘Titus’ was in my opinion a classic example of style over substance, with a beautiful looking production that sadly had little original to say and precious little heart. That said, I desperately want to see the company do one of the comedies, to see if they can bring out humour and warmth where it matters.

I don’t mean to say I didn’t like the production. I thoroughly enjoyed all three and a quarter hours (!) of it, and the time flew by. It has made an indelible visual impression on my mind, and was superior in many ways to the RSC’s production. Ninagawa is a master of working out how to say the things he wants to say- my hope is that in the future he can spend more time working out exactly what it IS that he wants to say.

February 28, 2007

Coriolanus @ The Royal Shakespeare Theatre

This is the final play in Shakespeare’s canon that I had never seen a production of (well, unless you count ‘Edward III’- and I’ve still only seen ‘The Merchant Of Venice’ on film), meaning that it’s the final chance I had to come to a production completely fresh, knowing little more than the basic outline of the plot and a few choice details. It’s also a landmark production for the RSC, being the last to be performed in the ancient Royal Shakespeare Theatre before it shuts down to be refurbished. It’s the last play, therefore, to be performed by the RSC on its own proscenium arch stage, and as such is in many ways the RSC audience’s ‘goodbye’ to a beloved theatre. More on that later.

I should say now that there are going to be a lot of major criticisms of this production, so want to put it on record that overall, I quite enjoyed it. The time flew by, the storytelling was clear and simple and the central performance, William Houston as Coriolanus, was superb, one of the best RSC performances of the year.

William Houston (Coriolanus)

But unfortunately, I have a long list of criticisms that dominate my memory of last night’s performance. A good production lay within, but the scars across it were bigger than Coriolanus’ own. Firstly, the set. A wonderfully striking set greeted us in the auditorium, a maze of pillars stretching back seemingly infinitely into the distance, supporting an oppressive red wall that hung over the playing space. But, a la Peter Stein’s ‘Troilus and Cressida’ (see my earlier review), they insisted on having the wall move about ominously, turning into a ceiling, a backdrop, city gates or even disappearing altogether. Which could have been all fine, if it wasn’t for the fact the wall was designed in such a way that you could see (from the circle) stagehands opening and shutting the gates, shining their torches as they tried to lock it, hesitating to avoid trapping actors and even here the squealing of the winches pulling it up jerkily. They had clearly tried for an epic design, but it was rendered audibly laughable by shoddy design and manouvering, which distracted from what else was happening around the stage.

The second big complaint is Timothy West’s Menenius. Last year he starred in ‘Life Of Galileo’ at Birmingham Rep, and there confused audiences who couldn’t understand why he kept stumbling over his lines and forgetting words. Sadly, he did the same tonight (and apparently has been doing since the performance began). I don’t know if he hasn’t had time to learn them properly, if he struggles with language or if, in the politest possible sense, it might even be a matter of age. Whatever the reason, it seems stupid that he has such a major role when he can’t deliver the part- and even when he wasn’t forgetting his words or losing his place, he held himself stiffly as if trying to remember what came next rather than acting properly. Considering that his is a name the RSC has sold the production on, it’s pretty appalling.

The crowd scenes were stilted, awkward and clearly somewhat under-rehearsed, with moments when all the cast seemed to be completely unsure what to do. Luckily, there were some solid individual performances, and the lead citizens in particular were good.

Finally, the homoeroticism of the production. ‘Coriolanus’ is a play that definitely has potential to explore the relationship between Aufidius and Coriolanus, and many productions have apparently made their attraction very explicit. Doran’s handling, though, seemed to me somewhat immature. As the two warriors came together for their single combat and dealt each other crushing blows, a loud backing track of heavy breathing started playing, growing louder as the characters’ fight blended into it. Eventually the two, panting heavily, stood opposite each other (both topless), threw down their weapons and ran together to start grappling hand to hand, as the breathing track reached its climax. Doran lays it on with a trowel, to a point where several of the audience were laughing at the crudity of it. Visually it was a stunning scene, but short of placards reading “CONFLICT FUELLED BY REPRESSED SEXUAL ATTRACTION”, Doran’s intentions couldn’t have been made any more plain. It was a shame, as their kiss when Coriolanus defected and the final moments as everyone walked off, leaving Aufidius cradling Corilolanus’ body, were very effective, more so for their subtlety.

Janet Suzman (Volumnia) and William Houston (Coriolanus)

The ranting out of my system, the production’s strengths deserve some attention. William Houston, as already noted, elevated this production single-handedly, presenting an energetic, arrogant Coriolanus who kept the audience enraptured, despite his obvious flaws, simply through his power and presence. His relationship with Janet Suzman’s strong Volumnia was also wonderful, he regressing to spoiled teenager in her presence. She was excellent- a fairly traditional performance, but full of power, and their scenes together crackled. Aufidius too was excellent, and the tribunes (who had their own evil music, in another slightly crude stroke) were also good, inspiring a touch of sympathy for their struggle to assert their power as representatives of the people rather than being purely evil.

The servingmen were three extremely camp Northerners (Why?! Can someone explain to me WHY, in the world of the RSC, there are always comic gay Northerners, normally from West Yorkshire? Could we PLEASE vary the regional accents a bit, maybe even have an heroic Northerner, just once?!) who inspired a great deal of laughter for their gossipping mannerisms, and the fights were well choreographed, pacey and satisfyingly violent.

I wanted to like this production, I really did. Overall, it was enjoyable and certainly a memorable telling of the play. Its flaws, though, ruined it for me, and sadly I don’t think the company will have the opportunity to iron these out before the end of the run. It’s a real shame, as there is a great production buried in there, and I don’t think we’ll have a chance to see it.

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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.

The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.

Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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