If you had to define what it means to be human, where would you turn for examples? To the Complete Works of Shakespeare, maybe. And in the far-future world of Quintessence, those plays are all that remains; humankind is extinct, wiped out by an environmental catastrophe of its own making, survived only by androids created in civilisation’s dying days. The robots’ mission is to reboot the human race, and their prime directive is to ensure at all costs that the newly-restored species thrives. Needless to say, this doesn’t go entirely to plan.
The set-up’s a complicated one, and the first part of Quintessence is laden with exposition - including an extended and slightly lecturing explanation of how Humanity v1.0 met its doom. But it’s worth the effort of digesting that super-sized lump of back-story, because what happens next is both clever and enthralling. The robots’ creators, anxious to preserve the human spirit, programmed them with Shakespeare’s plays - reasoning that no other writer has so finely captured the subtleties of human behaviour and emotion. And thus we find ourselves greeted by an android called Ariel… our guide to a utopian world peopled by a new and perfect human race.
Solo actor Emily Carding plays Ariel, and her physical performance is extraordinary. She positions herself squarely in the “uncanny valley” - the place where a robot resembles a human, but still feels eerily wrong. Her movements are repetitive, not quite natural; her smile is warm, but it turns on and off like the flick of a switch. Even the sing-song robot voice, which I feared at the start would rapidly grate on me, is done with such perfect consistency that it came to feel comforting and real.
But things are very different when Ariel activates “performance mode”, and Carding is freed to give us a blast of Shakespeare in regular human form. Most of the extracts are familiar ones, but there’s always something novel in the delivery: a line delivered unexpectedly softly, an emphasis thrown on a well-chosen word. Director Dominique Gerrard has helped Carding truly showcase her considerable talents, and the subtlety of the vignettes are a welcome counterpoint to the technocratic certainty embodied by Ariel.
Just as satisfying, and just as well thought-through, are the connections drawn between the Bardic extracts and the reboot of humankind. Sometimes the Elizabethan text merely mirrors and accents the sci-fi storyline, and that’s clever and cute enough. But the greater flourish comes when the robots use Shakespearean scenes to decide what’s best and worst about humanity… with results that are inarguably logical, but also completely wrong.
In its own small way, Quintessence is a study of the human condition; a comment that you can’t excise the bad parts of our character without losing some of the good stuff as well. It could be a plot from one of the more-thinky series of Star Trek, and there’s an enjoyable dry humour to it, too. If you enjoy sci-fi and you know a smattering of Shakespeare then this is the show for you. And whatever your tastes, you’re sure to admire Carding’s stellar performance; the future has never seemed quite so real.