Warning – This review contains discussion around very sensitive subject matter of an adult nature.
The second show that I saw whilst working in London recently was one that I had not heard about prior to my visit, however on discovering the nature of the production it was one that I decided I had to see, as the subject matter is not one you would usually see so openly discussed in a west end theatre. The show is called ‘The Nether’, and what I have to start this review by saying is WOW! This was a phenomenally realised and balanced production that stayed away from a lot of the ‘mob’ mentality that traditionally follows around any mention of the core theme. Instead opting to examine many themes from a number of adult, genuinely debatable perspectives.
So what was the core subject? Paedophilia and the internet. Yes, you read that correctly.
The Nether is set in a somewhat dystopian 2050 (not exactly light-years into the future), where the internet has continued to develop and advance at a frightening rate. Rather than logging in to the internet as we do now through a computer and search engine, in the 2050 created by writer Jennifer Haley and director Jeremy Herrin ‘we’ log on by placing our hand on a terminal and uploading our entire consciousness into an infinite number of ‘realms’ (virtual websites). Throughout the play, the real world is referred to as the ‘outer world’ and the internet as the ‘inner world’. Society is supposed to have developed to the extent that it is only the elite who can still have their children educated in the real world, with the majority being educated via virtual realms. When you think about it, the entirety of this future society is not that far fetched. Think about just how far the internet has developed in the past 20 years. In 1995 I knew of very few people who had any sort of internet access, search engines were in their infancy, websites were extremely crude and functional, and any actual engagement within a website (such as comments or interactivity) was highly unusual. Fast forward to 2015 where the internet is everywhere. Computers, mobile phones, televisions, in the classroom, and the vast majority fully interactive. So fast forward not just another 20 years, but nearly double that to 35 years and imagine where the internet could be if the rate of change continues.
The play starts with a man in his 50’s named ‘Sims’ (played by Stanley Townsend) in a room with a female agent; Morris (Amanda Hale). It is not immediately apparent either what sort of agency Morris represents, or indeed what Sims is being detained for. All that is revealed is that the agent is looking for information on the ‘Nether’ (future term for the internet) activity of Sims, but that she cannot get the evidence necessary unless Sims logs on, something that he has no intention of doing. Slowly relevant information is drip fed to the audience leading to the realisation that the agency is a recently developed criminal justice agency that was set up specifically in reaction to the advances in programming on the Nether. Until recently, although ‘virtual reality’, it was still quite clear to those ‘online’ that they were not in the real world; however Sims is a master programmer and has created a realm that is indecipherable from reality. Every sense is covered – touch, smell, taste, sight, sound. It is here that the moral and legal debate begins over the notion of ‘thought crime’, and whether virtual crimes carried out online could be treated in the same way as crimes on the outside. Previously, various crimes such as paedophilia would have been treated differently when online than in reality. Anybody viewing child pornography on the internet / the nether would only have been convicted of various publication type offences, the question here is whether due to advances in sensation effectively making ‘full contact’ possible, whether or not such actions in the nether could be treated the same way as similar crimes in the ‘real’ world.
In order to test the sensation theory, the agency has sent an undercover agent to infiltrate Sims’ realm – which we have discovered is a hideaway for paedophiles who can go there, indulge in their fantasies, and even kill the virtual child, Iris (played in the show that I saw by Zoe Brough aged approximately 11, though through the run is played by four different girls – as well as Zoe Brough there is also Jaime Adler, Perdie Hibbins and Isabella Pappas)) with an axe at the end. The various questions raised (and debated in the holding cell / interview room between Sims and Morris) include the full sensation debate, whether or not the realm is actually a public service by allowing those with paedophilia tendencies to indulge in their fantasies and therefore prevent them from doing so in the ‘real’ world, whether or not there is a link between online activities and real world actions, and whether or not it is a crime if Iris is not even a real little girl, merely the image of one. Whether or not Iris feels real emotions and pain (when being murdered) is another area for discussion and debate. The form of the play is that the foreground is the interview room, and at various points the scene cuts away to the background which has been set up (in an incredibly intricate and ingenious way) as the virtual realm on the nether. In one of these cut scenes, the undercover agent directly asks Iris ‘do you feel pain?’ and ‘she’ interestingly answers ‘only as much as I want to’.
Bearing in mind the subject matter, it can be really quite uncomfortable viewing at times given the presence within the production of a young girl, especially in certain scenes where she (as supposedly programmed to do) has to allure the client into wanting to have sex with her. One scene in particular is difficult when in front of the client she ‘seductively’ removes her pinafore (with other undergarments still protecting her modesty thankfully) before the scene cuts back to the interview room. BUT – I have to stress that ALL scenes such as this are for a purpose, and each raise a huge number of questions all of which add to the overall production. There is absolutely nothing that could be called either obscene or ‘crossing the line’.
Going back to the idea that the audience is drip fed information a bit at a time – you may think that you have a fixed opinion on all of the raised questions thus far, but there is more that is thrown into the mix. We progressively see more of Morris interviewing a second man, Doyle (David Calder), who we are initially led to believe may be one of the clients at the realm created by Sims, as he openly admits to his paedophilia fantasies. We also see more of the undercover agent, Woodnut (Ivanno Jeremiah) with flashbacks to his operation. In particular we see Woodnut starting off with a very professional outlook related to his investigation, but becoming more and more sucked in to the realm, eventually admitting that he has fallen in love with Iris.
Yet all is not as it seems. The twist comes when we discover that when a person logs on to the nether, they can appear within a realm with any appearance that they choose. We find out that Sims has in fact had a number of young girls before Iris, and that they were all given the same appearance by him. It transpires that she was made in the image of a previous neighbour’s daughter that he managed to prevent himself from abusing in the real world and has since been ravaged by guilt over the real life encounter that he halted before it progressed. It further is eventually revealed that there was no undercover agent – Mr Woodnut never existed; it was Morris herself uploaded in male form carrying out the investigation herself, and it is clear that she too feels numb with guilt at what she has done and how she has fallen. The final major twist is that Iris is not simply a virtual girl, but that rather than being a client of Sims, Doyle (a 65 year old man) had actually uploaded himself as Iris, a supposedly 8 year old girl. So of course this then raises the question of whether or not it can truly be classed as sexual activity with a child if in reality the activity is actually with a 65 year old man who simply looks like an 8 year old girl. Through all of this, Sims, who deeply cared for Iris, was completely unaware of ‘her’ true identity as Doyle, and the further question was raised over whether he could accept Iris for who ‘she really was’.
There were some further details in the production, this summary by no means covers everything, but gives you the main points. Again – are the actions truly ‘criminal’ given the lack of ability to distinguish between real and virtual, are these realms helping prevent crime or enabling it, are there links between virtual lives and real ones, the corruption of previously ‘normal’ people after getting involved in the activities under investigation, as well as various other issues linked to identity and the context in which crimes take place.
The acting was absolutely superb from all in question, especially with the range of emotions required to be both displayed through performance and conveyed to the audience. These are not easy subject matters to try to garner sympathy or empathy for the ‘offenders’, and yet at times it was something they were successful in achieving.
I want to return to the ‘uncomfortable’ nature of some of the scenes that I mentioned previously just to mention that yes, it may have been uncomfortable at times, but this was a GOOD uncomfortable, as the reason for discomfort was that you were being forced to question or think about issues that our current society has always portrayed as being very black or white; made to consider things that you might not voluntarily consider if not faced by the issues so directly. The acting, writing, production and direction was brave, challenging, contemporary, and overall a breath of fresh air – totally outwith the normal comfort zone of a standard west end production (of which I have seen a great many to use as comparison over the past few years whilst working in London).
This is a production that deserves to win awards. It is that simple. It should be noticed and if there is any justice then it WILL be noticed. If it is not, then I can only surmise that it is because the various awards short-listers are fearful of any potential controversy due to the subject matter.
This is an absolute 5 star production – in truth I would give it more.
Production photos from the official programme here are (C) Johan Persson, others including those of the theatre exterior were taken by me.