1. The maddest March: at last, a 16-seed upsets a number one., 17 [−]

THE line separating the improbable from the impossible is hard to pin down. The annual single-elimination tournament to crown the champion of North Americas National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in mens basketball is known as March Madness, thanks to the steady diet of upsets it produces. Every year, a few ragtag gangs of fresh-faced students from little-known universities, likely destined for mundane careers in accounting, sales or the like, somehow manage to topple a heavily favoured juggernaut packed with future National Basketball Association stars. Yet despite the events well-deserved reputation for giant-killing, it had never delivered the ultimate shocka top-seeded team losing in the first rounduntil last night. In a game that was supposed to be little more than a tune-up before facing more formidable opponents later in the tournament, the top-ranked University of Virginia was stomped by the humble, 16th-seeded University of Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC) in a 74-54 blowout.

From a statistical perspective, perhaps the only thing more surprising than the result was that it had taken so long for an upset like this to occur. The NCAA tournament is divided into four regions, each containing 16 colleges seeded based on their expected strength. From 1985, when the event adopted its current format, to 2017, schools given a number three... Continue reading

2. Keith Jarretts jazz trio releases its first album since disbanding., 16 [−]

THE release of a new Keith Jarrett album is not usually a significant event in the world of jazz. Over a career that has spanned some 50 years, Mr Jarrett has released dozens of albums, either as a sideman (with Miles Davis or Jan Garbarek), his trio (with Gary Peacock on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums) or as a solo artist. Even the most devoted fans of Mr Jarrett have only a fraction of his works.

Yet the release this month of After the Fall, an album with Messrs Peacock and DeJohnette, is different. It marks the first album since that trio, which played together for over 25 years, split up in 2014. News that Mr Jarrett has cancelled a forthcoming solo concert at Carnegie Hall in New York, reportedly on account of a long-term illness, has added to the poignancy.

The album is a recording of a concert from 1998. That places it around halfway along the chronology of the triothey began playing together in 1983and they sound quite different in their early period to their late. In the mid-1980s and early 1990s... Continue reading

3. Adam Smith, unlikely hero of the stage., 15 [−]
THE odd politics and fraught economics of recent years have inspired all sorts of thoughtful works for the stage. Yet many of these, such as Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer-prizewinning Sweat, about struggling factory workers in Reading, Pennsylvania, and Sarah Burgesss Kings, which probes the sleazy machinations of political lobbyists in Washington (at New Yorks Public Theatre through April 1st), have a dutiful, anthropological quality to them. It is as though playwrights suddenly feel obliged to leave their coastal, liberal enclaves to learn more about the folks who are informing national headlines and disrupting national elections. The effect is more educational than engaging; pedantic rather than dramatic. This makes The Low Road, which is having its American premiere at the

4. How liberal democracy fell apart., 15 [−]

The People vs Democracy: Why Our Freedom is in Danger and How to Save It. By Yascha Mounk. Harvard University Press; 393 pages; $29.95 and ?17.99.

DEMOCRACY is going through its worst crisis since the 1930s. The number of countries that can plausibly be described as democracies is shrinking. Strongmen are in power in several countries that once looked as if they were democratising, notably Russia, Turkey and Egypt. The United Statesthe engine room of democratisation for most of the post-war periodhas a president who taunted his opponent with chants of lock her up and refused to say if he would accept the result of the election if it went against him.

But what exactly is the nature of this crisis? And what is driving it? Yascha Mounks The People vs Democracy stands out in a crowded field for the quality of its answers to these questions. Mr Mounk provides an admirable mixture of academic expertise and political sense. He teaches at Harvard... Continue reading

5. Language is the last frontier for Hollywood film-makers., 15 [−]

RED SPARROW, a new thriller featuring Jennifer Lawrence as a Russian spy, is not entirely a paint-by-numbers film. Its hero is a woman. A few of its twists are genuinely surprising. But in one way, it is Hollywood to the core. Its Russian characters display their Russianness by speaking accented English to each other. Ms Lawrence hardly bothers with anything much beyond a general eastern European; only the occasional throaty l sounds at all Russian. And just one line of real dialogue is in Russian: another spy complains about a drunken American woman he and Ms Lawrences character are cultivating, saying that if he has to spend another minute with her he will shoot her in the face. The accents might give the viewer the same feeling.

Hollywoods attention to the detail of foreign settings, from clothing to sets, has advanced beyond the old lazy stereotypes of years past. But in things linguistic, the situation is patchy. Red Sparrow hardly improves on The Hunt... Continue reading

6. The making of a Shakespearean actor., 15 [−]

ON A Saturday afternoon in February, a month before Macbeth was to open at the National Theatre in London, its artistic director, Rufus Norris, rehearsed alone with Rory Kinnear. Dressed in jeans and trainers, Mr Kinnear heaved a battlement across the studio. On Mr Norriss cue, he became the thane, hand clutched to his pate in anguish, eyes aglow.

The sessions aim, said Mr Norris, was to find an approach to Shakespeares soliloquys that fitted the Olivier Theatre, the Nationals biggest. For all the brawling and sorcery, at the plays heart are the lulls in which Macbeth mulls the witches prophecies and the crimes they incite; in which he decides what kind of man he will be. These are intimate scenes, and finessing their gestures and tempo was intimate work, like a clinch between prizefighter and trainer. Its less literal, Mr Norris said of the dagger that Macbeth hallucinates before killing Duncan, the old king. Grab higher, he told his star.

It helped that... Continue reading

7. The great second act of Rodgers and Hammerstein., 15 [−]

Songs they will sing for a thousand years

Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammersteins Broadway Revolution. By Todd Purdum. Henry Holt; 400 pages; $32. To be published in Britain in May; ?25.

AT THE age of 46 Oscar Hammerstein was living as a country squire on his Pennsylvania farm, apparently washed up. It was 14 years since he had written his last hit, Show Boat, a landmark musical in its embrace of a gritty subject, race. Meanwhile Richard Rodgers remained, at 39, one of Broadways marquee composers; but he was contemplating a future without Lorenz Hart, a lyricist and his long-standing collaborator, who had become a shiftless alcoholic. The stage was set for one of the grandest second acts in entertainment history. From 1941 until Hammersteins death in 1960 his partnership with Rodgers yielded an anthology of musical theatres greatest hits: Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I and The... Continue reading

8. A beguiling tale of khans, commissars, spies and poet-queens., 15 [−]

The Devils Dance. By Hamid Ismailov. Translated by Donald Rayfield. Tilted Axis Press; 200 pages; ?9.99.

FROM Siberian banishment to the Soviet gulag, the cruelty of punishments under Russias tyrants has yielded a commensurately rich literature. It is unlikely, though, that any previous story has likened interrogation by Stalins secret police to a game of cricket, as a character does in The Devils Dance, a beguiling novel of sinister enchantments and mind-stretching affinities.

One man in, another man out, thinks the imprisoned Uzbek writer Abdulla Qodiriya real historical figureas his cell-mates in Tashkent in 1938 are dragged away to face trumped-up charges. Just like cricket, he reflects, a sport his companion Muborak, a well-travelled Uzbek Jew, has told him about.

As he sits in jail ahead of his betrayal, torture and probable execution, Qodiriy recomposes in his mind the historical novel he was writing at the time of his arrest. It deals with the... Continue reading

9. Perfected by Bach, fugues have enjoyed an impressive afterlife., 13 [−]

JUST before this years Super Bowl, a Philadelphia Eagles devotee sat down at an organ and started to play. There were more melodies than the average fan may have been used to, but the instrument soon quivered to the familiar sound of the Eagles fight song, Fly Eagles Fly! Elsewhere on the internet, a rival musician quickly composed a reply, riffing off Shipping Up To Boston to honour the New England Patriots. Remarkably, both pieces were fugues, a musical genre polished 300 years ago. They have challenged and seduced musicians ever since.

European composers have used counterpoint, the art of harmoniously tying different melodies (or voices) together through a piece, from at least the ninth century. Fugues themselves are a variety of counterpoint. Derived from the Latin for flight, their name hints at how fugues work. A catchy subject melody comes in first. It is then... Continue reading

10. Is Netflix the new straight-to-video?., 12 [−]

DEPENDING on your point of view, Netflix has established itself either as a haven for intelligent, challenging science-fiction drama, or as a dumping ground for follies which were too obviously flawed to merit a theatrical release. First, the streaming giant surprised subscribers by adding The Cloverfield Paradox to its catalogue with almost no advance warning. Then came Mute, a future-noir thriller directed by Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code). Both films offer sci-fi devotees a welcome change from superhero blockbusters and Star Wars episodes. Unfortunately, both films are also dreadful: they have 17% and 12% critical ratings on Rotten Tomatoes respectively.

Now Netflix is releasing Annihilation, which is written and directed by Alex Garland, the novelist-turned-screenwriter who scripted 28 Days Later (2002) and Sunshine (2007) before making his directorial debut with Ex Machina in 2014. It was set to be distributed by Paramount, but when test audiences were nonplussed, and Mr Garland refused... Continue reading

11. Sweet Country gives Australia an indigenous hero., 09 [−]

MANY like to think of Ned Kelly, Australias favourite 19th-century bushranger, as an Antipodean Robin Hood. His father was an Irish convict who had stolen two pigs; Kellys own criminal career began at 14 when he was arrested for allegedly assaulting a Chinese pig farmer. Later he and his band of brothers formed the notorious Kelly Gang and robbed banks, stole horses and held up trains. They hated the establishment. They terrorised the public. Yet long after his execution in Melbourne in 1880, this bearded criminal is glorified in countless books, films, statues, paintings and songs. On the Australian governments website he was once declared one of the countrys greatest folk heroes (the page seems to have been quietly removed in the past couple of years).

This hero status is a fallacy. As Warwick Thornton, an indigenous Australian film-maker, has pointed out: Ned Kelly didnt steal from the rich and give to the poor. Ned Kelly stole from the rich and the poor and kept it all for himself. In Sweet... Continue reading

12. Machines are getting better at literary analysis., 08 [−]

IN Dead Poets Society (1989), John Keating, a teacher at a 1950s American boarding school, played by Robin Williams, draws a chart, its shape dictated by a fictional essay called Understanding Poetry. The horizontal axis measures a poems technical quality, the vertical axis shows its importance, and the combination of the two determines its greatness. After allowing his pupils to draw such a chart for Lord Byron and William Shakespeare, Mr Keating declares the essay excrement, and orders them to rip it out of their poetry anthologies. This is a battle, a war, and the casualties could be your hearts and souls, he rumbles. There are armies of academics going forward measuring poetry, with little regard for passion, beauty or romance.

Doubtless Mr Keating would have been dismayed to read The Transformation of Gender in English-Language Fiction, a paper published last month in the Journal of Cultural... Continue reading

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