Michaela Coel first rose to prominence in 2015 with her E4 comedy Chewing Gum, which focused on a young woman struggling to reconcile her religion with sexuality. Written by and starring Coel, the show went on to win two Baftas and earned Coel a part in 2018 BBC1 drama Black Earth Rising, where she played a legal investigator who takes on a case prosecuting an African militia leader in the International Criminal Court. Since then, Coel’s been working on I May Destroy You, a powerful 12-part series – produced in collaboration with the BBC and HBO – and a semi-autobiographical account of one woman’s experience of sexual assault, and the blurred lines of consent her friends experience on a daily basis.
Arabella Essiuedu (Coel) is a pink-haired, carefree and self-assured Londoner with a group of great friends and a burgeoning writing career. When we first meet her, she’s meant to be working on the follow-up to her internet-famous memoir, Chronicles of a Fed-Up Millennial. After visiting her long-distance, sort-of boyfriend in Italy – instead of heading to a writing retreat – Arabella returns to London, where she is greeted by a deluge of frantic messages from her fed-up literary agents, Francine and Julian. With a matter of hours left to finish a draft of her second book, she plans to pull an all-nighter in their head office. But – easily distracted and fuelled by her second spliff of the evening – she’s soon tempted to join her friend Simon on a night out. But when her drink is spiked, she must question and rebuild every element of her life.
Following her assault, Arabella’s life changes irreversibly and she is forced to reassess everything: her career, her friends, even her family. As she struggles to come to terms with what has happened, I May Destroy You chronicles her journey of self-discovery.
Coel’s performance is stunning, and she plays the wayward Arabella with warmth and wit. She’s joined by a brilliant line-up of actors, including Weruche Opia (Bad Education, Inside No 9) who plays her best friend Terry – an aspiring actress – and Paapa Essiedu (Gangs of London, Press) as her friend Kwame, a gay fitness instructor with a penchant for Grindr. Elsewhere, the cast includes Aml Ameen (Yardie), Adam James (Doctor Foster), Sarah Niles (Catastrophe), Ann Akin (Career Of Evil), Harriet Webb (White Gold), Ellie James (Giri/Haji), Franc Ashman (Peep Show), Karan Gill (Flesh & Blood) and Natalie Walter (Horrible Histories). Together, they weave a powerful narrative that is both compelling and utterly believable, despite the horrors of commonplace events they’re involved with.
What initially seems like a light-hearted look at life as a 30-something Londoner soon transforms into something far more sinister when Arabella has the first flashback to her rape at the end of episode one – something she initially shrugs off. But these heart-stopping memories continue into the second episode. Her housemate enquires about a cut on her head, Terry asks her how she smashed her phone screen, and she soon discovers a cash machine withdrawal from Camden, when her friends insist she spent the whole night with them in Soho. There are other, seemingly innocuous, incidents that also litter the dialogue and drama, but which make just as much of an impact: when Terry auditions for a TV advert and is asked by the white casting director if she can remove her wig and if she’s able to wash her hair; when Kwame is sexually assaulted by the same man he has had consensual sex with moments before; and when Terry has a threesome with two strangers, only to learn that the two men are actually friends.
I May Destroy You was created, executive produced and co-directed by Coel. Her fearless, frank and provocative series explores the question of sexual consent in contemporary life and how, in our modern landscape of dating and relationships, we make the distinction between liberation and exploitation. An essential watch.
The first two episodes of I May Destroy You are on iPlayer now. Subsequent episodes will be shown on Monday and Tuesday nights at 10:45pm.
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