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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
THE NETHER
at Duke of York's

MORAL HINTERLAND
By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN


The moral conundrum at the centre of American playwright Jennifer Haley’s disturbing and mind-stretching play The Nether, first seen at the Royal Court last year and now transferred to the West End, is whether it's okay to engage in extreme sexual fantasies in a world of virtual reality where, regardless of the act in question (paedophilia and mutilation in this instance), no one is actually hurt.
 
By channeling one’s depraved sexual predilections away from reality and into a netherworld of avatars, are we, in fact, making the real world a safer place? What should the parameters of moral policing be where there are no consequences for one’s actions? Food for thought, indeed, and though Haley, in the course of her 80-minute investigation, never commits herself to answering these questions, the moral issues at stake are fully engaging and certainly topical.
 
The play is set sometime in the future and opens in a kind of interrogation room where a police woman, Morris (Amanda Hale), whose job it is to monitor the activities of a state-of-the-art internet system called the Nether, is questioning a shady character called Simms (Stanley Townsend), whose secret offshore server is a virtual reality Victorian haven, replete with a doll’s house and rocking horse, called the Hideaway where “guests” presumably pay him to partake of its forbidden depravity.
 
His code name is Papa, and the site, a Victorian country estate surrounded by a magical, mirrored garden of poplar trees, is so advanced that its subscribers turn into avatars and can smell, touch and engage in acts of paedophilia with a nine-year-old child called Iris (Jaime Adler, alternating with Perdita Hibbins and Isabella Pappas). Gruesomely, guests are even encouraged to snuff out their young victims with an axe.
 
Haley’s achievement is to take the highly emotive and taboo subject of paedophilia and child abuse and turn it into a moral debate that in no way feels exploitative, sensational or prurient. Unless you regard the subject matter itself as strictly off limits, there is nothing offensive or outrageous in the play. But, at the risk of being accused of seeking a more didactic resolution, I just wish the playwright’s own point of view had been more forcefully expressed. Or could it be that the issues are simply unresolvable?
 
All the performances – most notably Townsend as Simms and David Calder as one of his guests – are excellent, but the most memorable elements in director Jeremy Herrin’s taut and absorbing production are the extraordinary sets and video projections by Es Devlin and Luke Halls.

At once cinematic with its 3D-like swirling graphics that morph into striking images in the interrogation room sequences, then gorgeously theatrical in a Pollock’s toy theatre way when the backdrop is raised to reveal the visual paradise that is the Hideway, The Nether is visually stunning. This enticing aspect of a virtual reality paradise is, in itself, an ironic juxtaposition to the ugly and shocking content of the material it illustrates. A unique evening.

 


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