The Nether, Royal Court Theatre – Not utopia after all


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 Nether - Isabella Pappas (Iris) and Stanley Townsend (Sims)

The Nether – Isabella Pappas (Iris) and Stanley Townsend (Sims)

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.

Happy Days, Young Vic – What matter, that’s what I always say, it will have been a happy day.

4.5 hearts

Samuel Becket‘s 1960s play is a mountain of a challenge for any actress to take on and it must be said that Juliet Stevenson, as Winnie, the impossibly ebullient housewife, embodies the role perfectly.  Reminiscent of the seaside though completely surrealistic, we encounter Winnie asleep, buried in the earth, up to her waist.

Winnie follows a well-rehearsed routine between “the bell for waking and the bell for sleep” which turn out to be an incredibly loud horn that got me jumping from my seat a few times.  She prays, sings and talks to her husband, Willie (complete with knotted handkerchief and straw boater) who lives in a cave beneath and behind her.  In an orderly fashion, she empties the contents of her handbag.  Each item is handled with great affection and each gives thought to what it means to be Winnie (a comb, a toothbrush, an empty tube of toothpaste, a bottle of medicine for “loss of spirits…lack of keenness… want of appetite”, a lipstick, a nail file, a revolver and a music box).

Happy Days - Juliette Stevenson as Winnie

With the sun blazing above and from which there is no escape, Winnie talks to Willie (if he is listening at all) and to us, as women do.  She fills her time and the void with a stream of consciousness and a series of rituals that are all there to give her a sense of control over a situation that is completely hopeless and utterly out of control.  By the second act, poor Winnie is buried up to her neck but, fear not, she remains cheerful and still thankful for “many mercies” such as remembering “one’s classics” and is confident that this will be another happy day.  Much of what she says speaks volumes about Becket’s view of men,  women and how they relate to one another.  Winnie recounts how a passing man asks his wife “Has she anything on underneath?”   Winnie accepts that she is literally “stuck in the mud”.  She doesn’t question that fact and in that way she is a reflection of all of us who never understand how we ended-up where we did and unable to surmount our own predicaments.

The play is a work of genius in that it is so many things all at once.  It is the eternal hell of the housewife’s routine, of a bad marriage “I worship you Winnie be mine and then nothing from that day forth”, of the human condition, of man’s incredible will to survive, of our planet’s demise “Do you think the earth has lost its atmosphere, Willie?”  You get to pick the allegory that works for you and when you think that Winnie has said her last, that there is nothing more that she could add, she starts again and creates another memorable image that evokes our fears and coping mechanisms.

To quote Winnie, “That’s what I find so wonderful” about the play.  It shows us in a myriad of ways how humans cope with life, how we can always find a person worse than us and how we take comfort from this.  How we give a positive spin to our own situation, “What a blessing nothing grows, imagine if all this stuff were to start growing.”  Paramount to this coping though is Winnie’s need to be heard, if not listened.  Winnie needs an audience to survive and Becket thus illustrate how we cane endure so much as long as someone is there listening to us.

However hard she tries, Winnie’s talking cannot always keep the demons at bay and when the silence descends, we are shown glimpses of the agonizing reality and heartbreaking sorrow that she endures, “Forgive me, Willie, sorrow keeps breaking in.”

According to Knowlson’s biography, Becket said: “Well I thought that the most dreadful thing that could happen to anybody, would be not to be allowed to sleep so that just as you’re dropping off there’d be a ‘Dong’ and you’d have to keep awake; you’re sinking into the ground alive and it’s full of ants; and the sun is shining endlessly day and night and there is not a tree … there’s no shade, nothing, and that bell wakes you up all the time and all you’ve got is a little parcel of things to see you through life.” He was referring to the life of the modern woman. Then he said: “And I thought who would cope with that and go down singing, only a woman.”

Directed by Nathalie AbrahamiJuliette Stevenson is tremendous as Winnie.  She delivers this tour de force performance with energy, charm and such naturalness that you forget that you are listening to a woman stuck in a hole.  David Beames has the unenviable task of being Willie and does a perfectly decent job of it.  The set by Vicki Mortimer is imposing and the sporadic fall of dirt from above (possibly unintentional) reminded me throughout of how Winnie was being buried alive.

You would think that this bleak portrait of life would make for a very somber evening. On the contrary, I would say that people, myself included, left the theatre quite happy.  Maybe having seen someone in a worse predicament than ours, even for just a few hours, was all that was needed?  I would be remiss, however, to leave out that my male companion was not at all of my opinion and felt it was agony to sit through two hours of theatre with too little action for his 21st century brain.  So be careful about your choice of companion.

On this note, I leave you with Winnie, “Ah well, what matter, that’s what I always say, it will have been a happy day, after all, another happy day.”