A gripping thriller
The Daily Telegraph, Charles Spencer
The Nether is a gripping and deeply disconcerting look at the Internet and its role in one of the most disturbing issues of our times, says Charles Spencer
It has been a bumpy ride at the Royal Court since Vicky Featherstone took over from Dominic Cooke as artistic director last year, with more bummers than hits. But with The Nether the theatre has a thought-provoking, deeply disconcerting success on its hands, in a co-production with the outstanding Headlong company. It is a piece that taps into one of the most urgent and disturbing issues of our times, child abuse, and comes hard on the heels of the convictions of Max Clifford and Rolf Harris and the recent arrest of more that 600 suspected online paedophiles.
The play, by the American writer Jennifer Haley, is part procedural cop thriller, part evocation of the murky world of the internet. It is set in a dystopian future in which many people spend much of the lives on the internet, now known as The Nether.
Some are so addicted to it that they abandon real life altogether, getting themselves hooked up onto life support machines and “crossing over” to spend all their time in virtual worlds where it is now possible to experience such sensations as taste, smell and sex. But in the real world, the cops are keeping an eye on things and the tough female investigator Morris has brought in the owner of a lucrative site called The Hideaway where punters, retaining their anonymity by adopting avatars, are able to have sex with virtual children.
One of the wonders of the show is that in Es Devlin’s brilliant design, the online world has a magical reality. There are beautiful sunlit poplar trees, a quaint 19th-century house with elks’ heads on the walls and a jovial proprietor and host called Papa, who offers a beautiful virtual girl for the delectation of his paying guests. After they have had sex with her they are invited to slay her with an axe.
In Jeremy Herrin’s creepily gripping production, the play has all the fascination of a whodunit. The cop sends an investigator into the site to find out what’s going on, and there are some genuinely startling reveals as the plot develops. The play also asks an important question. Is having virtual sex with an avatar on a website necessarily a bad thing if it prevents men from having real sex with young children or from going online to look at images of children who really have been abused?
For those feeling understandably squeamish about the subject matter, I should say that the play features no sexually explicit or violent scenes, and you never worry that the young girl playing the beautiful Iris in the nether world will be traumatised by the play she is appearing in. The ominous atmosphere is created by suggestion rather than in-yer-face horrors.
There is a genuine innocence about the ten-year-old Zoe Brough’s performance, and cracking work from the adults too. Stanley Townsend is memorably sinister and devious as the owner of the site, while also revealing his own sense of guilt, and there are equally fine performances from Amanda Hale as the dogged cop and David Beames as the sad man whose only happiness is found in The Nether.
This is a haunting and highly original modern fairy-tale that combines creepy enchantment with a whiff of sulphur.