The Nether at the Royal Court
You take your seat for the play, sure of your stance and of your expectations, only for writer Jennifer Haley to squish them like plasticine and hand them back to you unrecognisable. From the most inflammatory subject matter comes a multimedia play that is deeply, daringly evocative. In a future time, the Internet has evolved into “The Nether”, a far more sophisticated and immersive entity. Detective Morris has busted Papa, the creator of a realm called the Hideaway, where visitors can use avatars to have sex (and more) with virtual young girls. Potent questions are posed: should the imagination be policed? What is “real” – the place inhabited by my body or by my mind? Could virtual life lessen the likelihood of paedophiles offending in the real world?
Es Devlin’s set is a feast for the eyes. Straddling a real-world interrogation room and an exquisite virtual world, it is the latter that draws us in with its gorgeous allure. A towering multimedia screen separates the two. Grey and oppressive in the real world, it changes to show an animation blueprint which fleshes out until it becomes a colour-flooded HD image of the Victorian-themed Hideaway. The screen then parts to reveal the identical, dazzling set. Reverting back to the interrogation room with its debate-style dialogues is like waking from a beautiful dream with a bump.
A Q&A was held just before the play, with discussion between playwright Haley and criminal psychologist Anthony Beech. “I thought, when the Internet comes out, ‘There’s gonna be a job for me!’” said Beech, who works with sex offenders. “Is it a safer world if we give paedophiles really good avatars? I suggest not. I think it legitimises it.” Haley spoke about her love of fantasy and the way that the Internet allows you to assume any identity: “Your dreams are a different form of reality but they’re just as real as life”, she says – much like the Hideaway, which, for the men, is the more real.
With a few unpredictable reveals thrown in, the steady script keeps attention throughout. It’s no surprise The Nether won the 2012 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, among other awards. The interrogation room scene is left on a deeply ominous note, and a final visit to the virtual realm strikes a disconcertingly tender one. All the elements come together perfectly to create something that is beautiful, uncomfortable and game-changing.
The Nether is at the Royal Court until 9th August 2014. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
Watch playwright Jennifer Haley discuss The Nether here: