“Just because it is virtual doesn’t mean it isn’t real”
There are times when an age guidance notice can seem like mollycoddling, but there are others when they are truly justified. The UK premiere of Jennifer Haley’s play The Nether by Headlong and the Royal Court is most certainly one of the latter cases, recommended for over 18s only as one of the more disturbing plays we are likely to see this year. The play is one of the more devastatingly effective looks at how the internet has shaped the way we live our lives and how society is struggling to keep up with, and govern, this fast-changing world. Writing now, a few days after seeing it, it still haunts my mind – a combination of Jeremy Herrin’s stunningly mounted production and a searingly brutal play.
Haley’s ‘Nether’ is her futuristic version of the internet where virtual reality has been fully integrated, so people are able to create their own realms like webpages. The playwright pushes that to the extreme in ‘The Hideaway’, a world created by Stanley Townsend’s Sims for him and other like-minded souls to act out their paedophiliac tendencies without actually committing any crime as it currently stands. Young detective Morris, Amanda Hale, has hauled Sims in for questioning though as she wants the details of the whole thing so she can shut it down, arguing that even online realms need to be policed, that all our interactions lead to our deeper understanding of the rules of the world.
Haley and Herrin do an excellent job of never letting us feel comfortable – as Morris continues her interrogation of Sims and of another user Doyle, ideas of freedom of expression and whether a different kind of responsibility applies in fantasy worlds are intelligently made in the face of Morris’ zealous authoritarianism. And as we switch between the different interview rooms and also delve into ‘The Hideaway’ itself, seeing just what it is that the users there get up to with the 9 year old Iris, there’s an excruciating sense of disquiet that builds on different levels – both within the play and without, we may be in a virtual world but it is still so very hard to watch especially as the girls who alternate Iris – Zoe Brough and Isabella Pappas – are both 11 year old stage debutantes.
I should be quick to say that the production is highly sensitive to this though, it is much more about how it makes us feel as an audience, especially as the twists of this thriller unwind. Haley also asks questions about the selves that we construct online and whether they are more true than our physical forms, liberation from notions of morality, sexuality, gender identity intersecting most fascinatingly to give some of the darker moments of a tumultuous climax. The acting is certainly strong but the most impressive work has been done creatively – Es Devlin’s set is a thing of true beauty, reflecting aspects of the more benevolent side of creating one’s own world, and Luke Halls’ video design is visually stunning, ensuring the fierce modernity that the piece demands. Truly powerful drama.