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The Nether – Review – Duke of York’s Theatre – London

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.

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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.

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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’.

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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’.

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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.

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Production photos from the official programme here are (C) Johan Persson, others including those of the theatre exterior were taken by me.

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Posted by on February 22, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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Taken at Midnight – Review – Theatre Royal – Haymarket – London

As previously mentioned, every time I go to work in London I make a point of going to see something in the theatre that has a link to either law, criminal justice, politics, psychology etc. In other words, something that has a link to my broad academic interests. I was extremely fortunate that whilst in London this past week there were two productions that caught my eye, and so I was sure to set aside the time to go to both.

First of all there was ‘Taken at Midnight’, at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket. In a way I was lucky to see the show on this particular night (Wednesday 18th February 2015) as during the show we were faced with a rather unique issue. Still – more on that later.

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The play follows the real life story of Hans Litten. Some of you reading this blog may already know the background here. Hans Litten was the lawyer who in 1931 subpoenaed Adolf Hitler to appear as a witness at a trial of four storm troopers accused of murder. This action, or rather the skill he displayed in running circles around Hitler during the trial, would prove to be his downfall, as in the aftermath of the Reichstag fire he was taken from his home and placed in ‘protective custody’ by the Nazi regime. Following various moves from concentration camp to concentration camp (in part due to Jewish blood in his family history), he eventually committed suicide in 1938 after refusing to assist the Nazis with their attempts to have various offenders’ (found guilty of offences before they came to power) convictions overturned.

The show itself was produced in a very clever way, with the set design split in two (shortly to cause a problem that I sadly predicted!) on the main stage. As you will be able to see in the picture below, the foreground played various office, home, and outdoor locations, with the background playing out the various concentration camp scenes. For all foreground scenes the story circulated around Hans’ mother Irmgard Litten, played with an exceptional performance by Penelope Wilton. These scenes were almost 50/50 split between Irmgard’s monologue and live action between her and the other characters including her husband Fritz (Allan Corduner), SS officer Dr Conrad (John Light), and British diplomat Lord Clifford Allen (David Yelland). Wilton plays her role masterfully, moving between distraught mother, cunning strategist, and strong opponent to the male protagonists of the piece with ease. Her ongoing struggle as she fights on behalf of her son is engaging from start to finish, and the director quite correctly made the decision to have her strong to the last – it would have been easy to have her character fall apart following the death of her son after a 5 year battle – this would have been the stereotypical ‘dramatical’ approach. BUT, this would not have been in keeping with the overall portrayal of Irmgard, who had been shown to be a rock throughout. It would have been easy for the performance from a lesser actress to have come across as unemotional, yet Penelope Wilton managed to get it just right – showing strength, yet still garnering sympathy and empathy. Her performance came across as being a sort of ‘dignified agony’.

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As Hans, Martin Hutson was excellent…. whilst he was there….

In various scenes, his dialogue, in particular with Erich Muhsam (played by Pip Donaghy), was exquisitely delivered, whether showing pain from his torture-inflicted injuries, or humour during his (ill-fated) re-enactment of the court scenes whilst he popped on a false moustache and pretended to be Adolf Hitler….

So now to stop being cryptic and outline the ‘disaster’ that I have hinted at during various comments in this review. Mid-way through the fist act, during the aforementioned courtroom re-enactment, there were crates on stage, one of which Martin Hutson was to stand on as though he were in the witness stand. The problem was that these crates were placed right at the edge of the split in the stage where there was already a 1-2 foot jump down to the lower part of the stage. As these crates were placed prior to the scene in question, I thought to myself ‘If somebody were to fall from there (the 1-2 feet plus the further foot or so from the crate), it could be a bit nasty’. Fast forward to 10 minutes later, and as the scene called for, whilst re-enacting the court scene, the guards burst in to the room, and the main characters were supposed to quickly disperse so as to avoid suspicion. It was at this point that in reality, not part of the show, Martin Hutson lost his footing and fell to the second stage below. He very quickly got up and got on with it – many in the audience may not even have realised that it wasn’t supposed to happen as the scene was certainly supposed to be a bit chaotic. Regardless, being a true professional, Hutson continued to the end of the act seamlessly.

Then at the half-time interval, a gentleman came out (he did not introduce himself so I do not know if it was the director or the theatre manager) and announced that Martin Hutson had hurt his leg and had to go to hospital, and so the understudy Marc Antolin would stand in as Hans Litten for the remainder of the performance. And he was superb. It must have been incredibly difficult to be thrust into the production at that point – it wasn’t under normal circumstances of the lead actor having a day off, or being ill before the production. Antolin would have had not idea whatsoever that he was to be called upon until a few minutes before he went on. And so if ever a performance displayed leading man qualities it was this one. Antolin played the part of Hans during his slow spiral into depression and illness, and did so as a true professional.

Overall, the production raised a number of question about the relationship between law and politics, the pressures and fear of reprisals that lawyers and barristers can have, especially when operating under sensitive regimes. Thankfully, the production showed the profession of law in a sympathetic light, outlining the ethical struggles that a true professional lawyer has to go through when faced with difficult questions being asked of him. Hans Litten remained an ethical professional to the last.

This was a 5 star production, which in spite of the problems that cropped up managed to continue without missing a beat. It was heartening to see during the curtain call that all of the actors, individually gave Marc Antolin a round of applause. I just wonder if the set designers / producers might have a bit of a rethink regarding the placing of those crates given the obvious hazardous situation that the placement created – I actually find it quite hard to believe that nobody else foresaw the obvious danger that I did within moments of seeing how it was laid out. Still – excellent all round!

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Posted by on February 21, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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Great Britain – Review – Theatre Royal – Haymarket – London

An unusual post for my blog, but one that I think is appropriate. Every time I go to London on external examiner duty for the University of Westminster, I make sure that I get the chance to see something at the theatre. Usually I’ll try to see something that is either political / legal in nature if there is anything in that genre. Luckily when I was in London on work during this past week, I was able to get a ticket to see the opening night of ‘Great Britain’ at the Theatre Royal on Haymarket on Tuesday 9th September.

 

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The production, written by Richard Bean, had previously held a successful run at the smaller Lyttelton Theatre during the summer months, and I was interested to see what all the fuss was about. Essentially the production is a satire on the ‘News of the World’ scandal and Leveson inquiry, however it has strong elements beyond this that focus on both political and police corruption and incompetence. As such, whilst the humour is excetionally strong, equally for those that choose to see beyond the comedy, there are real moments that give you pause for thought regarding both individual morality and modern human nature in general.

The way the production is structured is that the majority takes place in the newsroom of fictional tabloid newspaper ‘The Free Press’, with characters including the Murdoch-esque Proprietor played by Dermot Crowley, the vulgar editor played by Robert Glenister, and arguably the main character – Paige Britain (played by Lucy Punch), who is a ruthless up and coming news editor, who has frighteningly high ambitions to go as far as running the country from the murky shadows of the press by┬ámanipulating the leader of the Conservative party (Rupert Vansittart). Paige will stop at absolutely nothing to further her career and personal aspirations. Her journey takes us through initially minor areas such as employing people to go through the bins of celebrities, to more serious areas such as blackmailing members of the ‘Leveson’ committee who were investigating her conduct. The out of control spiral leads to the corruption of the previously clean Assistant Commissioner of the Police (Ben Mansfield), and eventually being caught after hacking the phones of fictionally abducted and killed twin children, and the suicide of their father after he was mistakenly arrested for their murder based on news reports stemming from Paige and her publication.

 

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All of the cast without exception were perfectly cast in their roles – there was nobody who was utterly dislikable or without some sort of redeeming quality, even if it was simply admiration for having such courage of their convictions that they were if nothing else entirely honest with themselves. Undoubtedly though there were two stars of the show – Lucy Punch as Paige Britain, and Aaron Neil as the Police Commissioner. Whilst I have said a fair amount about Paige, as yet I have not discussed the Commissioner, who is characterised as little more than a puppet, but one who is unaware that this is the role he plays. He genuinely tries his best, but is simply clueless and in over his head. By far and away the best one-liners come from the Commissioner, and Neil’s delivery is absolutely first class. Little bits of detail such as the playing on the screen of modern phenomena such as ‘youtube’ videos that people have edited of his press conference announcements in the form of a mocking ‘music video’ genuinely add something to the performance, and had the audience in hysterics.

As mentioned earlier however, it is not all about the comedy. There were undertones of morality and reflections of real life corruption present, undoubtedly deliberately, throughout the show. Most of these were genuine areas that would make you think, such as; were the police really that terrified of the media prior to Leveson that they would have evidence but cover it up for fear of being portrayed in a bad light? Is whistleblowing, when made to the press and not the authorities truly ‘corruption’? (This I think I could write a blog on its own right in, so I’ll not answer the question) What really are the limits of freedom of expression and the ‘public interest’? In particular we have to reflect on the lengths some people go to just to achieve fame, and where does it really lead when we are faced with the character of Stella (Kellie Shirley), a young aspiring glamour model, who starts off agreeing to drop a dress size and have cosmetic surgery before being given a contract as a ‘page 7’ model, and eventually is accepting a large fee for the newspaper to have exclusive rights to her death inevitably coming as a result of an eating disorder.

One area that I do think was misguided, and for me did not really work was late on the performance when Paige took centre stage to ‘tell’ the audience that we didn’t really care about phone hacking when it was all about the celebrity gossip, and we only cared when there was a moral outrage over the eventual hacking of the dead children’s phones. Paige laments that had the hacking resulted in the children being found alive then she would have been a hero, but as in reality it only led to headlines and the arrest / suicide of the father she was painted as a villain. This monologue is an attempt to make the audience feel uncomfortable about their morality as it forcefully asserts unequivocally that we ‘all’ were guilty of this. I for one have never thought celebrity gossip of the nature put across by the tabloids is okay, nor have I ever thought that phone hacking etc. were ever acceptable as I believe that people have a right to a private and family life. Perhaps however this is due to my roots as a lawyer, and the fact that I have taken an active interest in issues relating to press activities and regulation since I taught media law for three years, and still act as an external examiner in the subject.

 

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Of course, eventually it all comes crashing down around Paige, the Commissioner, and most of the other characters who had been corrupted, though the twist at the end is shown as Paige, following her inappropriately lenient punishment, manages to find huge celebrity herself as the host of a US talk show purely as a result of her former infamy, making the audience wonder, is there ever truly a way out of the sleaze, or will the cycle forever be perpetuated.

Overall, this was a superb production that should appeal to a wide demographic (though definitely NOT appropriate for children due to both the subject matter and the coarse language throughout), with a number of levels of comedy, satire, political commentary, and self-reflection. If you are in a position to see this, take the chance while you can.

I would definitely rate it as five out of five.

 
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Posted by on September 12, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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