This is mind-bending, it’s ingenious

The Times, Kate Bassett

This is mind-bending, it’s ingenious and it’s ethically challenging. A sinister drama about virtual reality and paedophiles, The Nether, by the American playwright Jennifer Haley, is set in the (perhaps) not-so-distant future. It is of immediate topicality, too, in the light of Operation Yewtree and this month’s police swoop on hundreds of suspected child abusers. 

Installed in a strip-lit interrogation room, Amanda Hale’s Morris is a stern young investigator employed by the Nether (formerly known as the internet) to enforce its moral standards. Morris is psychologically putting the screws on Sims, played by a bullish, increasingly defensive Stanley Townsend. She’s pressing him to reveal the location of his off-shore server, icily threatening public exposure if he won’t oblige.

Her team has just figured out that Sims is the coder — pseudonym Papa — who runs the Hideaway, an exceptionally advanced virtual reality site. The Hideaway’s users can apparently see, hear, touch and smell in the faux-Victorian Arcadia that Sims has created and, disturbingly, this realm is a paedophile’s dream.

Morphing into avatars, he and his clients can frolic in a life-like mansion on a leafy country estate, having chats and sex with apparently willing little girls and boys who can, furthermore, be readily axe-murdered in this alternate reality. Papa, indeed, prescribes that, arguing that there are “no consequences” here.

Morris increasingly fiercely counters Sims’s contention that such pretend enactments, satisfying dark urges, leave the real world safer. One of her own undercover division has, she declares, been alarmingly affected by posing as a shy Victorian gent named Woodnut and is becoming escalatingly unrestrained with Papa’s little favourite, Isis.

What makes Haley’s chamber piece doubly gripping is the ways that she uses the genre of detective drama to generate a seriously intelligent, neo-Shavian play of ideas — a knotty, important and thought-provoking disputation about virtual reality and moral policing.

Structured quite brilliantly as well, like a hall of mirrors, The Nether plays games with your mind regarding who is whose imaginary reincarnation as it flicks between the interrogation room and (paradoxically) actual glimpses of the avatars crossing paths in the Hideaway.

The director Jeremy Herrin’s taut staging — a Royal Court and Headlong co-production — is superbly cast and stunningly designed by Es Devlin and Luke Halls, with whirling monochrome projected computer graphics (3D wire-frame models) that flare into full-colour realities, and with walls sliding away to reveal the Hideaway, like a deceptively innocent idyll inside a glowing glass box.

That a child actress is on stage playing Isis, in a snow-white Victorian pinafore with angelic golden ringlets, is sharply disquieting and polemical, though any salaciousness is deftly avoided.

  • "This is mind-bending, it’s ingenious"

    The Times, Kate Bassett

  • "A brilliant production. I urge you to go."

    The Independent, Paul Taylor