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.

The Mistress Contract, Royal Court – Or what one feminist did to love men again.

2 hearts

If you’re at all upset by swearing or candid discussions about oral sex then you should avoid this latest offering from the Royal Court.  You would think that London’s theatre audiences have heard it all before but clearly some of the people who attended last night’s performance were displeased enough to walk out (quite frequently and loudly too).  I would like to be able to tell you that the play requires such frank discourse but that would be untrue.

Abi Morgan’s play is an adaptation of a book of the same title written under the pseudonym of She and He.  An American couple in their 40s embark on an affair in 1971 and the woman, a feminist, decides that a contract between them will make her situation more tenable and reduce the cognitive dissonance she experiences between her feminist ideals and her wish “to love men again”.  So, she presents him with a contract whereby he must provide her with a house and some money while she dispenses “mistress services” (i.e., “all sexual acts engaged in when requested”).

The Mistress Contract - Danny Webb and Saskia Reeves in rehearsals (Manuel Harlan)

The she in question has read her Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem and Andrea Dworkin.  She attends a “women’s group” and is keen to explain that she is not selling sex.  On the contrary, she feels empowered by this contract. The premise being that she won’t get disappointed if she gets paid for what she use to give, out of love.  Clear expectations and cash will solve her problems.   I’ll go out on a limb here but quite frankly, does anyone buy this?  She also decides to tape all their pre and post coital conversations over more than three decades, to ostensibly give it a research slant.  Thus is born a book (with its frank sexual content) but can this make a play?  I would say a resounding no.

Ms Morgan’s play is all talk and no drama.  Her choice of breaking down the fourth wall to insert a few dates and some exposition, all of which could have been covered in a short paragraph in the programme, doesn’t help to keep us enthralled.  Danny Webb does a fantastic job in the role of the businessman in love but how many times can you watch a man dress and undress on stage.  The same can be said of Saskia Reeves who is convincing as the pseudo-intellectual feminist by day and mistress by night.  Ms Reeves had a few problems with her lines on the first night though I’m sure these will be ironed out in time. The Royal Court’s Artistic Director, Vicky Featherstone, does a fine job  with very little and the set by Merle Hensel is beautiful, with large panes of glass giving us a view of the California desert.

Ultimately, I found the conversation unexceptional and the territory very well trodden.  And, even if we like to read about other people’s sex scandals (re François Hollande just to name one), being a fly-on-the-wall in their bedroom, should they wish to partake in such semi-intellectual discourse, is rather more boring than profound or even titillating.

Let The Right One In, Royal Court Theatre – When dating a vampire is your best option.

3 hearts

I have never understood the craze for vampire stories, Twilight or otherwise, so it won’t come as a surprise if I tell you that I neither saw John Ajvide Lindqvist’s 2008 film nor read his 2004 book of the same title.  Last night, however, I saw Jack Thorne’s adaptation for the stage of Let the Right One In, which is, I am told, faithful to Lindqvist’s original story.

Some critics have called it a vampire love story but I would disagree.  Our main protagonist, Oskar, is a teenager who is bullied at school and let down by every adult in his life and is ultimately preyed upon by a local teenage girl called Eli.  I say, “preyed upon” because theirs is not a romantic alliance but more one of convenience. Both are outcasts.  Oskar moves between two equally unattractive worlds, one where his divorced parents alternatively ignore, manipulate and fob the poor boy onto each other and school were he is taunted by his classmates and let down by his teachers.  Eli, for her part, is an unearthly creature controlled by her “dad”, Hakan, and forbidden from interacting with the outside world.

Martin Quinn and Rebecca Benson (courtesy: Manuel Harlan)

Martin Quinn and Rebecca Benson (courtesy: Manuel Harlan)

Turns out that Eli, who has been around for a few hundred years in the body of a teenager (a definition of torture in itself), doesn’t like to be called a vampire (who would?).  She does, however, need her quota of blood (otherwise she starts to smell) and has enrolled Hakan for the job.  Hakan’s chosen method is to spring upon his victims, gas them to sleep and bleed them to death by slitting their throats.  Problem is, it’s hard to stay in one place when your main breadwinner is a blood-seeking older man who roams the local woods looking for victims.

Oskar meets his new neighbour, Eli, on a climbing frame in the forest one night and they soon become friends as only two lonely people can.  Striking up a relationship out of reject as oppose to common interests.  We gradually come to realise that what looked slightly paedophilic in Hakan’s unnatural desire for Eli, is the fact that they have been together for a very long time indeed.  Eli’s guardian is actually her now rejected lover, so not her father after all.  But as Hakan’s utility as a blood provider is compromised, Eli must find a substitute watchman to guard over her daily repose and guarantee her liquid intake.  Oskar and Eli both need someone to watch over them but for different reasons. When Eli saves Oskar from the school bullies, I couldn’t help but feel that he had made a Faustian pact with the devil.

The friendship, school bullying and criminal investigation into the murders move the play along nicely but I couldn’t muster much excitement for what was happening onstage.  I know that London has been afflicted by a cold spell lately (which might have hardened my heart somewhat) but my teenage companion was equally unmoved.  There was something quite disconcerting in asking the audience to care for a poor lonely girl who in the space of a few days had conspired to kill four people to ensure her own survival.  Surely that has to be one of the best examples of a selfish teenager.  I was secretly hoping that in one of the last scenes, Oskar, armed with a sharp knife, might rise to the occasion and kill Eli and put everyone out of their misery, Eli included.  That was not to be.

The play, which premiered in Dundee in June, comes to us via the National Theatre of Scotland and is adroitly directed by John Tiffany, the award-winning director of Once and Black Watch and the NTS’s outgoing associate director.  Steven Hoggett, the assistant director, has created beautifully choreographed and fluid scenes.

Martin Quinn plays Oskar with flair depicting perfectly the unease of teenagers.  He is physicality awkward and constantly unsure of what to think or say but eager to please and be liked. He would be friends with Eli whatever her gender.  Rebecca Benson’s Eli is a cat-like pallid girl who speaks with weird eerie detachment.  The text implies that she wants to understand Oskar, yet after hundreds of years, she has yet to master that skill.  She remains strangely detached and this might be the reason I found it hard to warm up to her character.  The rest of the cast provides first-rate support from Susan Vidler (Oskar’s alcoholic mum), Ewan Stewart (Hakan), Chris Reilly (teacher/policeman) and Paul Thomas Hickey (dad et al) though I was a bit confused by the Scandinavian names and Scottish accents.

Christine Jones has created a beautiful set of towering birch trees, which convey an appropriately northern feel to a play where the domestic interior is just as chilling as the snowy Scandinavian forest.  The climbing frame is transformed into a swimming pool complete with water (why can’t my bath fill so quickly?).

I have been told that the original was a comment on the post cold-war age of social-democratic affluence and the discontent of its youth.  This production, however, is very much based on Oskar’s coming of age and his desperately lonely situation.  The real poignancy is indeed to see him fall for a vampire because everyone else has let him down.

Quick Suggestion – Book The Nether at the Royal Court, July 2014

The Royal Court has announced its new season and one play stands out for me.  The Nether by Jennifer Haley which was the winner of the 2012 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize.  The play, created by the Center Theatre Group, premiered to rave reviews in Spring 2013 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles.  According to the Royal Court website, “The Nether is both an intricate crime drama and a haunting sci-fi thriller that explores the consequences of making dreams a reality.”

The play, which is a co-production with Headlong, will be directed by Jeremy Herrin ,the company’s new Artistic Director since September 2013.  Herrin was Deputy Artistic Director of the Royal Court Theatre from 2009 until 2012 and in December, he will direct the world première of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies for the RSC.

The play only runs between July 18th and August 9th 2014.  Tickets go on sale Monday November 18th at 10 am.