We can be anything we want to be these days, we are told. But what if the thing you want to be is socially and morally unacceptable? The internet has created a vast realm where almost anything is possible and allied with video games the development of increasingly sophisticated virtual worlds where users can be represented by maquettes with any combination of physical features. Here either resembling themselves or looking like another person entirely they can interact with others, join communities, create their fantasy home and live a life free of consequence.
The Nether has one of the most intriguing theatrical trailers you’ll ever see and well worth a look before you book tickets. Transferring from the Royal Court the play is set in the not too distant future where the internet has become so sophisticated that whole lives can be lived there and anyone deciding to transition from real-life will be able to experience not just actions but also sensation through their character. But within this new world of free-choice The Hideaway has been created, a place where men can go to enjoy the company of a child named Iris, a place that encourages paedophilia and murder without consequence. Internet detective Morris needs to find the server location and shut it down, and tries to extract information from the site owner and a user leading to some disturbing revelations, a couple of quite remarkable twists and some extremely dark food for thought.
This is an impressively realised piece of theatre that combines extraordinary design with a truly challenging issue, and one that you will change your mind about repeatedly as the story unfolds. Essentially it poses an impossible dilemma, is it better to allow paedophiles to have a safe place on line to satiate their wants and prevent their engagement with real children or by shutting down The Hideaway and its depravities, set them back into real life and a risk to society. It’s a classic Royal Court production which takes a current issue, particularly in the light of Operation Yewtree and its high profile convictions, and tries to show it to you from all somewhat uncomfortable angles – at no point is this an easy watch, so if you’re expecting a jolly night at the theatre, think again!
Luke Hall’s video design is as innovative as I have ever seen and brilliantly segues between the projected digital imagery and Es Devlin’s beautiful Hideaway set which initially you see in a computer-screen shaped box emphasising the projection around it, but is later revealed in its entirety as the audience and characters become complicit in the action. The Hideaway itself is a style mixture of modern and Edwardian, surrounded by poplar trees, encased on three sides by image distorting mirrors that created an illusory depth in this virtual world – a very nice metaphor for the play’s content.
The real-world shown to us in the interview room is drably grey and black in comparison with cameras and monitors observing these men from every angle. Seemingly so unappealing in comparison to the light and joy of the virtual world but no less voyeuristic in its Big Brother-like association, and this only serves to make us think more carefully about the way image is used to confuse us, and how beauty can often be used to mask a much darker meaning. In this case the faux paradise may seem enticing but what is happening there is heinous, and while our real world may sparkle less, it is still governed by enforceable morality that protects and helps us.
Jennifer Haley’s script is written with considerable economy – an eighty minute show with not a single piece of fat. Every word spoken by the actors is carefully chosen to either move the plot along or to contribute to the almost philosophical debate unfolding on stage. The four actors are very good; Stanley Townsend as the aptly named Sims is the creator of The Hideaway who rationally defends his work as a public duty, and in Townsend’s chilling performance you are forced to recognise the arguments he’s making however violently you disagree with them. It is also fascinating to see his absolute belief in himself shift as we learn more about his purpose and interaction with other characters.
Amanda Hale as Morris also begins on firm ground as someone who is certain of the legality of her role and her approach to the case. Yet in questioning the suspects, she too begins to reveal more about her methods and the audience is forced to question whether doing something terrible is worth it if the end result is a wider good. David Calder meanwhile is Doyle a member of the site who is willing to give up his real life to live there permanently. Calder gives us a broken man, struggling with his real-self with a fairy-tale-like desire to run away to a place where he’s happy. That desire to feel part of something and loved by someone comes across in his tender performance.
The Nether will send you home with more questions than answers. Is the internet a safe place, should it be better regulated, who should make those decisions and how should they be enforced? But it will also force you to consider much darker themes about identity, and how we present ourselves to the world. We may make jokes about who’s really behind internet dating profiles and fan-sites and it may seem harmless now, but will assuming alternative names, faces and personalities lead to greater danger for everyone, blurring the boundaries between fiction and reality. Will being whatever you want online have ramifications for people’s behaviour and moral codes in everyday life? Should those who want to commit unimaginable crimes be given a virtual space in which to do, if it will spare them being acted out in reality? I came out of The Nether not knowing the answers to any of these questions and you probably won’t have them either but as a provocative and challenging piece of theatre it is well worth having your mind and your conscience tested. So the question is, who do you want to be and are you sure there are no consequences?