Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The Nether at Royal Court

I can't use a witty title for this one because honestly The Nether by by Jennifer Haley was one of the most disturbing yet absorbing plays I've seen in a while. Following the recent spat of celebrities, politicians and more who have been uncovered as paedophiles after years of cover-ups and enabling by "those who didn't tell"; this play's subject is right at the heart of the public conscience at the moment. 

Its subject matter however is not really paedophilia, though the most horrifying of crimes is the vehicle used to lead the audience to the questions it asks; namely, on the Internet and virtual reality and morality. 

In summary, the Nether is set in a future where the Internet or the Nether as it is now called is an entire immersive world where people can log in and exist (much like The Matrix) in a virtual reality with their own chosen persona or avatar. Here they can live out their fantasies as they cannot in real life, look like they want, be with who they want and create realities that are the most aesthetically pleasing to them; a virtual wonderland if you will. For the reality that now exists in the play's present time is a grey world with no trees or natural spaces. 

The play focuses around a character named Sims or 'Pa' in the Nether who has created a server that is unreadable by the loose authority that polices the Nether, yet they know what goes on there. In the primary scene he is being interviewed by a Detective Morris, unsure how he has been found out.

The action switches between the present interviews, with Sims and another character Doyle as Detective Morris questions them endlessly about the goings on in the Nether and in particularly "Pa's" Victoriana throwback, the Hideaway to goings on in the actual Hideaway.

Here is where the play becomes magnificent really, because the set design and lighting takes us into a truly beautiful world, where there's green and trees everywhere and hyper colours and lightness. The Hideaway is almost abnormally beautiful and the use of light displays that show the matrix beneath it are also impressive.

Here we meet "Iris" - one of four children who live in the Hideaway to service the needs and pleasures of those who visit; "Pa" and another visitor "Woodnut" who seems to fall in love with Iris. The play continues from here as the characters nuances are shown and we get to grips with the question of whether such virtual behaviour helps or hinders these type of people when they go about in their in-world (real) lives. Does it not cause them to want to behave like this more? Additionally, Jennifer Haley has made the adult behind avatar Iris, in-love with Pa... which confuses us further.
"I've read the studies. No one has been able to draw a conclusive correlation between virtual behaviour and behaviour in-world."- Sims/Pa
The Guardian* subtitle says, Does inclination pre-exist exposure? This is again one of the questions that has continuously reappeared when referencing online and gaming behaviour, but the influence, the influence though.. there must be some the papers shout. I would hasten to agree with this even though nothing has yet been concretely proved it.

I was uncomfortable throughout the play, with the subject matter, with the young girl actress who played Iris (Isabella Pappas on my performance) being so affectionate with these old men. The production forces you to confront this fear and discomfort. 

However, to me, what it is really about is philosophy - if you make a certain choice or do a certain thing that is wrong - even in a virtual world, you have still performed this act. The tree has fallen in the forest even if you do not see it or hear it. That is my opinion. That is all. Others would disagree. There's also always disagreement about what is right and wrong, so there's that too. 

I would give the production, script, acting and especially set and lighting five stars and fully recommended The Nether. Expect to be blown away though.. I think I came away from it a little more fearful, a little more aware and winded by our current world.

The Nether is at the Royal Court until August 9th 

Images are (c) Johan Persson 

*The comments on this Guardian article show how much the subject riles

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