2 August 2014
Recently I reviewed fledgling theatre company Pivot Theatre’s production of Gulf, on behalf of A Younger Theatre; although it had its merits, for me it didn’t engage powerfully enough with the dark topics of child pornography and paedophilia that it attempted to explore. Over at the Royal Court, Jennifer Haley’s play The Nether demonstrates how to tackle these issues in a gripping, haunting and immensely thought-provoking piece of theatre.
In the play, “The Nether” itself is the internet a few steps further down the evolutionary line. No doubt taking the lead from the explosion of social media in recent years, Haley has imagined a society in which the world wide web has developed into a virtual reality, to which anyone can log in and create a world, an appearance, and an identity – some eventually “crossing over” into this world full-time. Yet Haley has also taken inspiration from one of the most disturbing elements of human behaviour, that of child sex offences. As the plot progresses, the darkest corner of “The Nether” is revealed: a site where anonymous punters can have sex with children, which are themselves avatars of adults logged in to a particular site.
Haley’s script deals with such a dark theme with intelligence and force, not shying away from the difficult social and moral discussions; yet she refrains from making it purely an ‘issues play’ by also creating a thriller of a plot, whose twists genuinely shock. What is perhaps most horrifying about the play is the presence of a child actor playing the role of Iris. Seeing a young, vulnerable child as part of the action – while there is no graphic content, the dialogue leaves us in no doubt what occurs – is something of a stomach-turner, but the young actress gives a fantastic performance that somehow seems full of both innocence and understanding.
Indeed, there is no weak link the cast, with the wonderful Amanda Hale giving a terrific performance as Morris, the police officer investigating The Hideaway; David Beames breaking my heart as a man who can only feel complete through his Nether avatar; and Stanley Townsend giving a disturbingly lucid turn as Sims, the founder of the site. Stealing the show, however, is Es Devlin’s brilliant design. The luscious trees of The Hideaway are reflected by high mirrors that create so many reflections and layers, the effect is hyper-real. The impressive virtual world is contrasted with the greyness of the interview room, while the digital screen work is truly inspired, fusing the digital, the imagination and the natural in a realm with elements of magical realism. The whole thing is truly hypnotic.
Originally written in 2012, The Nether is one of the best examples of new writing I’ve seen in a long while. It confronts exceptionally difficult questions with no fear, creating an engrossing, fascinating and deeply disturbing production that provokes much discussion and intense disquiet.