Jennifer Haley’s ‘The Nether’, directed by Vlada Nebo-Kravtsova, exposes its audience to everything that our parents warned us about on the internet: at best, getting so lost in the virtual world that the real one is forgotten, and at worst, strangers living out paedophilic fantasies, and murder. It’s a thought-provoking and disturbing play, keeping the audience on the edge of their seats for the entire performance. Because it doesn’t shy from discussing such controversial themes, you watch and wonder whether they actors will go so far as to show us that which is implied – the sexual assault of a child, or her savage murder. Thank goodness, they don’t, but the nauseating anticipation follows the audience throughout the performance.
In terms of production, the play was very well done. The creative use of the stage, alongside the contrast of Victorian costume with modern clothing, made for a bare, simplistic setting that reflected the nature of the play as set in a semi-virtual world. The details of the virtual Hideaway are meticulously thought-out, down to the scattering of puzzle pieces across the floor. This, in comparison to the clinical interrogation rooms, heightened the sense that the real world of the play existed in its virtual setting.
That theme of reality and imagination is explored throughout the play, ultimately making the audience question where ‘real’ life exists. Is it in the organic, physical world, or in the virtual, imagined worlds that the users of the Nether create for themselves? And indeed, if the virtual world is the most significant one, to what extent is virtual crime acceptable? Sims’ (Bradley Butler) idea of a ‘world without consequence’ seems appealing at first – perhaps a place where you could escape your physical life – until it becomes a hotbed for the indulgence of paedophilic impulses. These acts, however, aren’t fully paedophilic, if the child in question is being played by an adult man – so is the Hideaway worthy of punishment or not? This further links into questions of identity. The character of Doyle (Angus McHarg) is shown to be the real-world actor for the child, Iris (Brett McCarthy Harrop). If Doyle is so invested in his Hideaway self, then is not his virtual self the more authentic one? It’s these questions that leave the audience slightly baffled at the end of the performance. We find ourselves empathising with Sims, understanding his frame of thought – the play portrays paedophilia as a complex psychological condition rather than an symptom of amorality.
The cast did a fantastic job in creating the world of ‘The Nether’, showing us the complexities and implications of a virtual civilisation. Eilidh Northridge as Morris was particularly good, embodying an investigator who gets too close to her case. As we begin to understand her and her ties to the Hideaway, we also begin to understand the wider world in which she operates.
Alongside Northridge, McHarg embodied a deeply troubled man who seeks refuge in the Hideaway, to the detriment of his ‘real’ life. His portrayal of mental illness and desperation was played with a quiet sensitivity that gripped the audience. His virtual self Iris, played by McCarthy Harrop, showed childish innocence mixed with hopeful naiveté. What the audience initially views as an unscrupulous child, becomes a portrayal of a manipulated adult at the mercy of the Nether. Similarly, William Byam Shaw in the role of Woodnut showed us a seemingly innocent man who loses himself in the appeal of Sims’ world as the audience looks on in horror.
Overall, the production was almost flawless. Issues with blocking and voice projection were trivial in comparison with the gripping, tension-filled story that the audience is presented with. It’s not a play for the faint-hearted, however, as it is a stage for open and relatively uncensored discussion for very difficult themes. It delves into complex topics, mixing the dangers of virtual reality with very human stories of suffering and love. Above all, it asks of us – is this where the 21st century is headed?