Time Out, Andrzej Lukowski
One of the myriad ways in which life was simpler before the internet is that theatre-makers didn’t feel they had to portray the bloody thing on stage: it’s fundamentally impossible to make some bloke looking at a laptop dramatically interesting.
The genius of US playwright Jennifer Haley’s multi award winning ‘The Nether’ is that it uses the medium of sci-fi to pep up its points about the web, but it uses it lightly. It is a parable about the online world and our relationship with it, but it’s been exaggerated into a future where the internet has evolved into the Nether, an advanced virtual reality in which most people work, go to school and indulge their fantasies. We see comparatively little of this, in what’s largely a detective story set largely in the real life (or ‘in world’). But use of the VR conceit both raises the stakes and makes the portions set in the Nether more disturbing and more dramatically satisfying than if they just involved the cast fannying around on PCs or something.
Shady entrepreneur Sims (a growling Stanley Townsend) has become unspeakably rich via the creation of the Hideaway, a dazzlingly perfect virtual recreation of a Victorian country estate, which clients visit in their anonymous Nether guises in order to soak up the retro vibes and fuck and/or murder the various young children who populate the house.
So far, so grim, but is it child abuse when the children are in fact the avatars of adults? The police think so – intense young detective Morris (Amanda Hale) has hauled Sims in, intent on finding the Hideaway’s server. But does she have another agenda? And what is the true identity of Iris (Isabella Pappas), the nine-year-old Hideaway denizen who has seemingly won the hearts of Sims and his guests Woodnut (Ivanno Jeremiah) and Doyle (David Beames)?
‘The Nether’ is an emotional detective story first and foremost. Under Luke Hall’s dazzling projections, Jeremy Herrin’s agonisingly taut production is more concerned with feelings than technology. The internet has undoubtedly changed us as a species, and ‘The Nether’ asks big questions about how we go forward. Haley condemns nobody as a pervert, but rather shows a selection of people in agony because their real and virtual lives have come into conflict, and it’s not ethically clear which should win.
If I simply wrote down all the play’s twists, it wouldn’t convey its fat-free intensity and troubling clarity of vision. ‘The Nether’ may never happen, but the questions it asks are already chillingly pertinent.