Jennifer Haley’s new play The Nether takes us into a very believable future world where most people live online. In the Nether, students attend classes online, people tend virtual gardens (I assume because we have killed all vegetation) and some have even elected to live on life support to remain permanently connected to their avatar to the exclusion of living in the real world and committing to concrete but certainly more messy relationships.
The play alternates between a police interrogation room and an idyllic virtual Victorian world called the Hideaway (a synonym for the Darknet?). The premise seems simple enough. Morris, a female detective, is investigating a particular website and has brought Sims in for questioning. She confronts him with his creation, a seemingly benign Victorian world, but one where visitors can commit murder, mutilation, rape and paedophilia without consequences or repercussions. But is that really the case?
In the Hideway, Sims’ alter ego is Papa, a gentle-looking older man, who prefers one of his creations, a pre-pubescent girl names Iris. Here is a perfect Victorian upper class world (none of Dickens’ characters are about) where you hear the wind in the poplars and where whisky tastes better than in real life. Iris will let you do anything to her as long as you follow the rules and don’t get attached.
Back on earth, Morris confronts Sims but he is adamant that the Hideway is vital for people like him. People, who are sick and have unstoppable urges to do bad things to others. There, they can enact their fantasies without hurting people in the real world. For Morris, however, the Hideway is a sinister place, which must be pulled down. To achieve her aims, Morris brings Doyle in for questioning. Doyle is a prestigious science lecturer nearing retirement who is a frequent visitor to the Hideway. Morris also sends and agent, Woodnut, to the nefarious world to collect information that could lead to Sims’ capitulation. Woodnut becomes our own proxy or avatar for discovering this perfect world.
We think we know where this is going but we are tricked, just as the characters in the Hideway. The play is clever and there are some very ingenious plot twists but I would say that it is above all else a play of ideas not emotions where the characters sometimes feel as though they are only foils for Haley’s arguments. The Nether is nevertheless extremely topical and relevant. Haley focuses on paedophilia and murder to make her point and ingeniously weaves in the all too pervasive human activity to miss use the internet and where trolling and the 21st century advent of catfishing* makes many of us uncomfortable with privacy and human rights when it veers to the abusive.
The play is adroitly directed by Jeremy Herrin, Headlong’s new Artistic Director since September 2013. The Royal Court has, once again, spared no expenses with an absolutely beautifully crafted set by the magical, Es Devlin. The costumes by Christina Cunningham are also particularly worthy of mention. Amanda Hale as Morris is all convictions but ultimately and unexpectedly damaged by events as her character’s initial rigidity is shown to be a defence mechanism. Stanley Townsend as Sims plays the entrepreneur answering society’s needs with bravado while being quite creepy as the ultimate sugar daddy in the Hideway. David Beames as Doyle, portrays the man’s guilty attitude and final undoing very convincingly. I particularly enjoyed Ivanno Jeremiah performance as Woodnut, the investigator in disguise in a virtual world full of people who are not who they seem. Both Zoe Brough and Isabella Pappas play Iris on different nights. I’m not sure which one I saw on the night I attended but she was very good and gave a complex performance, showing both a young child’s naiveté and her character’s more twisted programming. Though she plays a much younger character I must admit that I was somewhat disturbed by what is required of these young actresses.
The play raises many questions about the consequences of living in a fantasy world where real experiences come to pale in comparison with virtual ones and where computer addiction is a rising problem. How will this affect our society? Do our activities online not mould our actions in the real world? What are we creating when actually, most of us, if one believes the latest poll, actually resents all the time they spend glued to their screen to the exclusion of live interchanges. What will be the end result of this real-time experiment? I was, however, perplexed that in Haley’s futuristic virtual world, the one emotion visitors were not allowed to experience was love. So much for utopia.
* A catfish is someone who pretends to be someone they’re not using the internet to hide their true identity, particularly to pursue deceptive online romances.