Last night, I walked out of The Royal Court in dumbstruck silence.
Presumably the same went for the others around me who just weren’t saying anything for a few minutes. Then the buzzy chatter began – my head was fizzing with questions and trying to find my own answers to them. Because paedophilia – and how to deal with it – is one of those tricky topics that causes a sharp intake of breath and for people to choose their words VERY carefully. Yet The Nether simply presents a situation without ever telling you how to feel about it. The benefit of this being a One Act play is that it allows plenty of time for discussion in the bar after – and there was a lot of that.
Ultimately, The Nether is set somewhere in the unspecified near future where people create an online identity and “indulge their every desire”. While there are a few echoes of the virtual reality game Second Life, your actions online are policed and have ramifications in the real world; in this case, a virtual character having an unhealthy interest in virtual children. It begs the difficult question of whether giving paedophiles a designated online space for their urges would help to protect real children, or whether it runs the risk of normalising (and possibly even condoning) their behaviour, thus putting real children in more danger.
We begin in an interrogation room: the uncomfortable task of playing Mr Sims/Papa falls to Stanley Townsend. There is no apologising for who he is. He is confident, arrogant and all his lines laced with the threat of what he might do in the real world if they rescind his login…. and what others like him might do if they delete The Hideaway, the realm he has created – its purpose completely at odds with its look of wholesome Edwardian charm. I’ve seen some reviewers describe this play as ‘harrowing’. (1984 was harrowing. I would call this unsettling and sinister). His interviewer is Morris (Amanda Hale) a woman who, while determined to exact the full force of the law, finds herself in a very tricky position, not least because of the complex dilemma of this particular case.
I know several who’ve felt very uneasy about the fact that there’s a child in the cast of The Nether – precociously played by Isabella Pappas. But something in the back of my mind knew that the writer and director would have to draw some clear boundaries with what you can and cannot ask a child actor to do, especially in a play about paedophilia. So we see the conversation beforehand and the impending child sex abuse is all implied (and then we conveniently switch back to the interrogation room right before anything is ‘required to happen by the script’ for want of a better term). Also at the Hideaway is Woodnut (Ivanno Jeremiah), a guest who seems more interested in what goes on there than in participating.
There is something quite interesting at the heart of this play in that it has become the norm for everyone to have an online presence in The Nether and that it also gives you the total freedom to be anyone you want to be. So while Mr Sims finds his freedom in being an exact replica of himself, other characters have chosen to forge themselves a totally different identity. Morris’ other interviewee is Doyle (David Beames), a man who seems thoroughly uncomfortable about admitting to how he spends his time at The Hideaway, not least because in the real world, he is a teacher and has a very real fear that his wife and students might find out ‘who he really is’. A good thriller will give you a plausible set up, hook you in, intrigue you and throw in a few red herrings along the way. It is right towards the end of the play that it dawns on us that Doyle is not an abuser, but a willing abusee.
But the thing that stood out for me most about this play was the incredible set by Es Devlin. Behind the interrogation room is a large screen filled with surveillance footage. Every time we visit The Nether, this screen pixellates into the geometric shapes of the in-world characters (exquisite computer animations by Luke Hall), and then rises to a perfect realisation of that scene, right down to the synchronicity of Papa swinging Iris around the room. The clever use of carefully angled mirrors and trees gives a kaleidoscopic effect that makes the backdrop look as though the forest outside goes on forever and ever.
This is a thought provoking play which asks a lot of very difficult questions about the internet and the implications of being yourself. I’m not sure I can answer the questions raised, but the play doesn’t provide any answers either, and nor would I want it to.