Magic and mentalism

Ghostly goings-on at the Duke of York's Theatre.

Halloween approaches, when "the world's edge seeps and bleeds" according to Hilary Mantel, and so what better time to enjoy the tricks and treats on offer at the Duke of York's Theatre? Ghost Stories is the scary love-child of Andy Nyman (Derren Brown's mind-control collaborator) and Jeremy Dyson (one quarter of The League of Gentlemen); it's in the tenebrous tradition of Victorian mentalism and magic, and comes with dire warnings attached for those of a nervous disposition - namely me.

Nyman himself plays anchorman to the entire proceedings, a certain professorial parapsychologist by the name of Philip Goodman. It's a cunning ruse to have an arch-apologist for the rational curate the ghoulish tales for us in an analytical lecture format. He fluently makes the case for ghosts as manifestations of the troubled mind but then, some way into the show, glitches start to appear in his performance, and at one point he literally comes apart at the seams. Without giving too much away (we're all sworn to secrecy) it turns out that the poor old Prof is protesting too much and is prey, as it were, to his own unresolved anxieties.

The three exemplars offered up by the corduroy-clad Nyman are great fun in an end of pier Ghost Train kind of way, though properly speaking it's more of a slow train - and this is meant as a compliment. Doubtless the intention behind giving the actors the room to do very little for extended periods is to crank up the tension but personally I enjoyed watching the actors unhurriedly go about their mundane, gadget-based affairs: a night watchman ticks away time with internet porn and radio phone-ins; a city broker-type is permanently paired with his smartphone to conduct the adrenalized business of sustaining two Mercs and a mortgage as his domestic life unravels.

Technology is used here to disturbing effect: there is something innately disquieting about the recorded voice - all that spooky distortion - and sound designer Nick Manning makes ample use of speech variously garbled by phones, tape recorders, walkie-talkies, late-night radio. He also subjects us to an indeterminate background rumble as events unfold and jacks up the volume at moments of stress just to shred the nerves a little. Of course night-time is a precondition for things that go bump to really put the wind up the punters and James Farncombe shows a dastardly sleight of hand with the lighting or, more accurately, its absence. This, combined with ingenious misdirection and a highly mobile set, makes for some very nasty surprises indeed.

But it's all rather jolly and a festive mood prevails in the stalls. There's a knowing wit and a conscious hyperbole at work alongside the reveals that would seem to render them harmless as a joke-shop prank or a sophisticated version of peek-a-boo. In the absence of anything truly terrifying, one's imagination is apt to recruit all the chance noises of the auditorium into the narrative: the coughs, rustles and exits are just as jangling as the calculated onstage frighteners.

As a confirmed horror dodger ever since Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (it's not so much the flying car that was creepy, you understand, as the child catcher), I was beginning to congratulate myself on emerging unscathed. Until, that is, the final stretch of the performance, when a new reality kicks in, which, like a double exposure, contains ghostly echoes from the old one. Our touchstone shatters and cracks open to reveal dark ambiguities.

Never mind what it says about us as decadents and voluptuaries that we seek to flirt with fear, and treat yourself to a good scare this Halloween: it's a scream.

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Donald Trump wants to terminate the Environmental Protection Agency - can he?

"Epa, Epa, Eeeepaaaaa" – Grampa Simpson.

 

There have been countless jokes about US President Donald Trump’s aversion to academic work, with many comparing him to an infant. The Daily Show created a browser extension aptly named “Make Trump Tweets Eight Again” that converts the font of Potus’ tweets to crayon scrawlings. Indeed, it is absurd that – even without the childish font – one particular bill that was introduced within the first month of Trump taking office looked just as puerile. Proposed by Matt Gaetz, a Republican who had been in Congress for barely a month, “H.R. 861” was only one sentence long:

“The Environmental Protection Agency shall terminate on December 31, 2018”.

If this seems like a stunt, that is because Gaetz is unlikely to actually achieve his stated aim. Drafting such a short bill without any co-sponsors – and leaving it to a novice Congressman to present – is hardly the best strategy to ensure a bill will pass. 

Still, Republicans' distrust for environmental protections is well-known - long-running cartoon show The Simpsons even did a send up of the Epa where the agency had its own private army. So what else makes H.R. 861 implausible?

Well, the 10-word-long statement neglects to address the fact that many federal environmental laws assume the existence of or defer to the Epa. In the event that the Epa was abolished, all of these laws – from the 1946 Atomic Energy Act to the 2016 Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act – would need to be amended. Preferably, a way of doing this would be included in the bill itself.

Additionally, for the bill to be accepted in the Senate there would have to be eight Democratic senators who agreed with its premise. This is an awkward demand when not even all Republicans back Trump. The man Trum appointed to the helm of the Epa, Scott Pruitt, is particularly divisive because of his long opposition to the agency. Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine said that she was hostile to the appointment of a man who was “so manifestly opposed to the mission of the agency” that he had sued the Epa 14 times. Polls from 2016 and 2017 suggests that most Americans would be also be opposed to the agency’s termination.

But if Trump is incapable of entirely eliminating the Epa, he has other ways of rendering it futile. In January, Potus banned the Epa and National Park Services from “providing updates on social media or to reporters”, and this Friday, Trump plans to “switch off” the government’s largest citizen-linked data site – the Epa’s Open Data Web Service. This is vital not just for storing and displaying information on climate change, but also as an accessible way of civilians viewing details of local environmental changes – such as chemical spills. Given the administration’s recent announcement of his intention to repeal existing safeguards, such as those to stabilise the climate and protect the environment, defunding this public data tool is possibly an attempt to decrease awareness of Trump’s forthcoming actions.

There was also a recent update to the webpage of the Epa's Office of Science and Technology, which saw all references to “science-based” work removed, in favour of an emphasis on “national economically and technologically achievable standards”. 

Trump’s reshuffle of the Epa's priorities puts the onus on economic activity at the expense of public health and environmental safety. Pruitt, who is also eager to #MakeAmericaGreatAgain, spoke in an interview of his desire to “exit” the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. He was led to this conclusion because of his belief that the agreement means “contracting our economy to serve and really satisfy Europe, and China, and India”.

 

Rather than outright closure of the Epa, its influence and funding are being leached away. H.R. 861 might be a subtle version of one of Potus’ Twitter taunts – empty and outrageous – but it is by no means the only way to drastically alter the Epa’s landscape. With Pruitt as Epa Administrator, the organisation may become a caricature of itself – as in The Simpsons Movie. Let us hope that the #resistance movements started by “Rogue” Epa and National Parks social media accounts are able to stave off the vultures until there is “Hope” once more.

 

Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman

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