views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

The Nether
Duke of York's Theatre
12th March 2015


David Calder and Amanda Hale as Doyle and Morris

Photography © Johan Persson

Forget superfast fibre optic broadband and think more the holodeck: the future of the internet involves physically immersing yourself in a completely different world. It's so addictive that some people choose to "cross over" and leave their real lives behind forever. Or at least, that's the dystopian take on technology presented in Jennifer Haley's disturbing and thought-provoking play The Nether.

A title like that needs some explanation. Ignoring the fact that the Nether has one more dimension to it, the concept reminds me of the hallucinogenic animated zone in The Congress, where you take a pill, and become anyone you want to be. Initially this other world is simply the next generation of cinema, allowing more interaction with the stars. But as years go by, the vast majority find themselves hooked, unable to function in the real world and unwilling to try. Oh, the basic idea has been done before, and skilfully too.

Whilst this possible evolution of technology has already been explored, what's so fascinating about The Nether is how the show takes this future to darker places. Yes, The Congress's aged Robin Wright falls in love with a former animator in a 2D trippy world and they get jiggy with it, and Voyager's Janeway gets through a self-imposed voyage of celibacy through the Delta Quadrant with regular visits to holographic environment Fairhaven, but consent is never questioned. In The Nether the identity of those behind the avatars is kept secret, and uncomfortable questions are raised: who are these operators? Do they do what they do willingly? Are they even old enough or mentally sound enough to make that decision? If their real identities are completely disguised, how can we be sure they're not being abused?

And yet that's not the only only issue. If humans act our their deepest, darkest desires on inappropriate lifelike projections that they can physically touch and smell, images which are operated by real people, is that okay? Does it prevent them from criminal behaviour in the real world, giving them a safe way to deal with those urges, or does it merely perpetuate a problem? It's certainly less final than one day of anything goes in the real world, as explored in (distinctly awful) film series The Purge. If doubts surrounding consent and age can be resolved, how is this any different from role play between two adults? It's more realistic, granted, but with advances in technology, fantasies are inevitably going to rely less on imagination. What exactly are we against here?

Isabella Pappas and Ivanno Jeremiah as Iris and Woodnut

Photography © Johan Persson

Given the difficult ground covered, Haley spends a lot of time, well, scene-setting and explaining the issues. (Bit like this review, really.) We pick them up quickly, and this does make for a frustratingly slow-burn start, but in hindsight, director Jeremy Herrin probably lets the pace drag here to allow time for those ideas to sink in. I know the questions asked by the play are still rattling around in my head - they're not easy to answer, and you'll struggle to stop thinking about them long afterwards.

But even though it takes a little while for the action to pick up, you never lose interest for a second, and a large part of this is down to the stunning visuals. The graphics by video designer Luke Halls are outstanding, giving the production a credibly futuristic feel, and a sense of Big Brother watching, successfully creating claustrophobia in what is such a large space. And this video design beautifully complements the work done by set designer Es Devlin, who creates a marked contrast between the clinical interrogation room and gorgeous, ethereal space of the Hideaway. Poplar trees sway gently, the bright green leaves reflecting against the mirrored background to make it feel like there's a never ending forest encircling the Victorian house. The rooms are delicately decorated, and the whole building feels irresistibly attractive. You don't need to hear the hints dropped about the state of the real world to never want to leave this digital sanctuary.

Opening scenes involve Morris (Amanda Hale) interrogating Sims (Stanley Townsend) and Doyle (the ubiquitous David Calder) about their involvement in the Dark Webesque Hideaway "site", with flashbacks showing undercover cop Woodnut (Ivanno Jeremiah) trying to gather information from little girl lris (Isabella Pappas). Hale does feel disappointingly flat against a much stronger cast, with Pappas in particular delivering a knock out performance as Iris. This is a character who is innocent, naive, vulnerable and - at times - more knowing. I can't fathom how anyone could act that part so well without understanding the dark aspects to it - and yet Pappas is still of primary school age. For this production to work, you really do need someone this young to front Iris, and the fear is no one that age will be mature enough to handle the part, but Pappas shows a phenomenal amount of talent.

With stunning design and an intriguing plot, The Nether is a show which will easily draw you in. The digital environment shown to us represents "a life outside of consequence", and as we walk away from it after the performance, we're left feeling slightly dirty from having been a part of that life for the best part of 80 minutes. And yet, we'd happily return, which is possibly the most worrying thing about the production.

The Nether opened on 30th January and runs until 25th April 2015 at the Duke of York's Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Leicester Square (Piccadilly, Northern)

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