The Nether

Duke of York’s Theatre, London

© Johan Persson

© Johan Persson

It’s hardly surprising that Jennifer Haley’s The Nether has already acquired such acclaim (the Susan Smith Blackburn, a clutch of other American new writing awards as well as a Critics Circle award for its designer Es Devlin for last year’s British premiere at the Royal Court).

Taking the unlikely juxtaposition of paedophilia and the internet, Haley has turned it practically into a love poem or at the very least a persuasive argument for claiming that perhaps, after all, the internet is the safest place for anti-social behaviour without their being serious repercussions.

Except that in the case of her central protagonist, the middle-aged Sims (a transcendent Stanley Townsend), hauled up before the female detective Morris, something has gone terribly awry.

For all Sims rationalisation of harmless freedom in his perfect cyber Hideaway world where he can indulge his Alice in Wonderland world of benign control over a string of little girls all called Iris, his creation has had murderous consequences.

© Johan Persson

© Johan Persson

Nobody is quite who they appear to be in The Nether – except for Iris, the little girl the object of Sims’ (he likes to style himself `Poppa’) desire. Part thriller, part exploration of love – fantasy and real – and the seductive temptations of swopping personas in the virtual reality world of video games, The Nether despite its dangerous, not to say explosive sexual subject matter, exerts a strange and beautiful hold on the imagination.

So brave and challenging a treatment is also one that in Jeremy Herrin’s Headlong/Royal Court co-production gets an extraordinary visual expression through Devlin’s video and digital design – one that, not unlike though very different in subject to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Teh Internet is Serious Business, shows theatre designers re-inventing theatre design for our digital age and taking it to a new level.

As the two middle-aged men (David Calder plays the other protagonist to Sims) stand amidst the trees and woodland of Sim’s Hideaway world, declaring their love for each other through other personas, it’s a testimony once again to theatre’s extraordinary transformative power in creating aesthetic and emotional frissons simultaneously.

Disturbingly wonderful.

First published in Reviewsgate, Feb 2015