Film Review: Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

A starry Mary Queen of Scots proves an intriguing if a little frustrating film debut for Josie Rourke

“The world will decide for itself”

An intriguing, if a little frustrating one this. Josie Rourke is a titan in the world of theatre and Mary Queen of Scots marks her cinematic debut. But despite a classy pair of lead performances from Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie as diametrically opposed queens Mary and Elizabeth, an ensemble consisting of the cream of British acting talent, and the sweeping beauty of the Highlands to frame every other shot, the film never really quite sparks into life.

Beau Willimon’s screenplay, based on John Guy’s book Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart, dances around historical accuracy with its own determination, building in a climactic meeting between the two which although visually striking, dramatically brings precious little. Before then, the film is plotted as a strategic confrontation between two monarchs, two women, who are battling the worlds around them as much as each other. Continue reading “Film Review: Mary Queen of Scots (2018)”

TV Review: Humans Series 3

I can’t help but think Humans might have run its course as a uniquely intelligent and British sci-fi drama

“…the coming together of man and machine. You can change the course of history…”

I’ve enjoyed where Humans has taken us thus far, and the beginning of a third series seemed promising. But as I got to the end of this season and twist after twist pointed at where the story might well continue, it felt like I might have reached my expiration date with the show.

The human/synth baby that Mattie is carrying, Niska’s transformation into ur-Niska, V’s survival…it’s hard not to feel that any of these feel far less interesting than where Humans are trod thus far in its carefully balanced but uniquely British brand of sci-fi. Continue reading “TV Review: Humans Series 3”

TV Review: Humans Series 3, Episode 1

All hail the return of nuanced, intelligent sci-fi – series 3 of Humans starts on Channel 4

“Lemonade not included”

I’m not entirely sure why Gemma Chan and Emily Berrington haven’t become hugely famous due to the world-class performances that both have been delivering for two series of Humans, the third of which has just started on Channel 4. As Synths possessed of consciousness, they manage the not-inconsiderable task of translating the world of sci-fi improbability into something deeply, deeply affecting, and this latest series shows no sign of that changing.

Following on from the events of Series 1 and Series 2, this third season takes us a year further into the future. With the consciousness code uploaded to all synths worldwide, the ensuing chaos led to ferocious reprisals from the human population which has left the synths decimated, ghettoised, shut off from the society they longed to join. And its the chill of recognition here that makes Humans works. You can call this near-future or dystopian but the anger and prejudice against the ‘other’ is as current-day as they come. Continue reading “TV Review: Humans Series 3, Episode 1”

Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Specials 2008-2010

“Because your song is ending, sir…It is returning. It is returning through the dark. And then, Doctor? Oh, but then… He will knock four times.”

Cos he’s special, David Tennant got to spread his farewell over 4 specials from Christmas 2008 to New Year 2010, and as this also marked Russell T Davies’ departure from the show, the stories start off grand and rise to operatic scales of drama by the time we hit the megalithic The End of Time. That finale works well in its quieter moments but does suffer a little from an overabundance of plot and whatnot. The Next Doctor and Planet of the Dead are good value for money romps but it is The Waters of Mars and all its attendant darkness that stands out most, teasing all the complex arrogance of a God-figure gone wrong. Continue reading “Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Specials 2008-2010”

TV Review: Humans Series 2

“All we can do is what feels right”

There’s been something really quite moving about the second series of Humans, the Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley Channel 4 drama which has just wound to a close. In a world that started off examining the diametrically opposed differences between humans and synths (series 1 review), the stark black and white palette of the show has moved markedly to a murky shade of grey on both sides, complicating the actions of both parties to make us really appreciate the difficulties in deciding right and wrong.

So where the renegade synth Niska (a brilliant Emily Berrington) has decided to subject herself to human justice in order to try and find some common ground, newly awakened Hester goes fully rogue in defining humans as the absolute enemy, to brutal effect in a chilling performance from Sonya Cassidy. And questions of identity are no less complex on the human side, as the show toys with ideas of humans opting to live life as a synth and experimenting even further with technology. Continue reading “TV Review: Humans Series 2”

TV Review: Humans Series 2 Episode 1

“I don’t deem your remark pertinent”

I came late to Series 1 of Channel 4 drama Humans but I’m making no such mistake this time round. And perhaps conscious of the show’s enormous critical and commercial success, creators Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley have considerably upped the ante on this second series, spreading the reach of the story from the UK to the US, Berlin to Bolivia. And though its scale may be becoming increasingly epic, the writing has thankfully maintained its startling intimacy in its explorations of what it means to be human.

To catch you up, the show centres on the invention, and subsequent evolution, of anthropomorphic robots called synths, designed to serve humans but a certain number of whom have become ‘conscious’. This second series sees that group on the run from the authorities, dealing with the ramifications of Niska’s decision – made early on here – to grant that same life to other synths, uploading code that is gradually deactivating their conditioning worldwide. Continue reading “TV Review: Humans Series 2 Episode 1”

Review: The Homecoming, Trafalgar Studios

“You wouldn’t understand my works. You wouldn’t have the faintest idea of what they were about. You wouldn’t appreciate the points of reference.”

It’s good to know that theatre directors are only human too – anyone in their right mind who watched Channel 4 drama Humans over the summer would have noted Gemma Chan delivering one of the performances of the year in any medium and naturally wanted her in on their projects. She has been working for a while in film, TV and theatre but now she’s now appearing in Harry Potter spin-off Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Jamie Lloyd has secured her services on stage in his new production of The Homecoming.

Truth be told though, I needed someone that exciting to tempt me to see it as I don’t much get on with Pinter, I’ve never had that breakthrough moment with any of his works to make me what received wisdom assures me is there. And whilst I wouldn’t go quite so far to say I’m a complete convert, I can honestly say I haven’t ever enjoyed a Pinter production as much as this one. It’s the 50th anniversary of The Homecoming but though firmly anchored in its 1960s milieu, Lloyd imbues the play with a strongly contemporary dramatic feel that is hard to resist. Continue reading “Review: The Homecoming, Trafalgar Studios”

TV Review: Humans Series 1

“You’re just a stupid machine aren’t you”

I wasn’t going to write Humans up but I’ve spoken so enthusiastically about it with several people since I watched the whole thing in three days and so thought I’d better recommend it even further. If there’s any justice in the world, Gemma Chan will win all sorts of awards for her performance as Anita (later Mia), the Synth or human-like android that has become the must-have accessory for domestic service in this parallel present-day universe. 

Anita is bought by the Hawkins family who soon start to twig that something isn’t right in the way she is behaving and as Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley’s drama continues over its 8 episodes, we come to see that the lines between human and machine have been considerably blurred by technological advancement and its potential to be exploited identified as a key priority for the nefarious powers-that-be.

Continue reading “TV Review: Humans Series 1”

Review: Our Ajax, Southwark Playhouse

“Now I know war makes men lose all sense of themselves”

Like Caroline Bird last year for the Gate, Timberlake Wertenbaker has looked to tales of Ancient Greece to create a new play that speaks of the unique trials of modern warfare and the demands it places on soldiers from “Troy, Flanders, Basra, Helmand” and beyond. Our Ajax draws on Sophocles’ Ajax as well as dialogues with people serving in the armed forces right now, but as with Bird’s The Trojan Women, there are difficulties in combining the Hellenic elements – not least the presence of divine power – with the all-too-real scenario of modern-day desert combat.

In a world where the acronym PTSD is chillingly familiar, this Ajax is a decorated Lieutenant Colonel who flips over the edge when he is passed over for a promotion to Brigadier which goes to rival Odysseus instead. But though his devoted battalion recognise what is happening, there are no structures in this version of the military to deal with such crises and so as Wertenbaker unpicks the varied reasons for Ajax’s mental collapse, there’s an inexorable slide towards tragedy that spans from the personal to the institutional. Continue reading “Review: Our Ajax, Southwark Playhouse”

Review: Yellow Face, Park Theatre

“Nowadays, it’s so hard to tell”

London’s newest theatre opened its doors in Finsbury Park last week but the Park Theatre also has a more intimate studio and it is the UK premiere of David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face that christens that space. Hwang was the first Asian-American to win a Tony for Best Play and so was a predictable figurehead for the 1990 protests against the casting of Jonathan Pryce in a Eurasian role in the Broadway production of Miss Saigon and it is this that forms the starting point for his play Yellow Face which questions ideas of race and identity and whether any such thing as a multicultural society can really exist when prejudices continue to weigh in from all sides.

Hwang uses his own experiences but also weaves elements of fiction into the play – the version of himself who is the lead character is (barely) renamed DHH – to create something of a fantasia, which allows him to heighten the absurdity of many of these situations whilst simultaneously maintaining the chilling realisation that most of it is not too far from reality. It’s a heady mixture and one which frequently pays off. The trickiness of dealing with the sensitive subject of race is tackled head on and with no little humour – trite aphorisms about tolerance and looking beneath the skin are constantly rehashed and recycled, even borrowing lyrics from an En Vogue song at one point, as the difficulties of verbalising what racial identity really means and just how important it actually is are thrown under the spotlight. Continue reading “Review: Yellow Face, Park Theatre”