In one of Isaac Asimov’s usually prescient imaginings he envisions spaceships designed to dart through the stars – for the sole purpose of delivering letters. So explosive has been the advent of the internet that not even our greatest speculative genius seemed able to foresee it. It’s near impossible to guess what the World Wide Web will throw at us next, but boy is it fun to try.
“Don’t tell me you’ve never fucked an elf.” It’s one of the less shocking but characteristically droll lines in Jennifer Haley’s multi-award-winning The Nether. In the play’s near-flung future the internet has been succeeded by the virtual world of the title, users logging in to experience not just a brighter reality, but one without consequences. Yet in this bleak new world it’s not just lines of code that have been rewritten: the question of what is and is not permissible has been wiped clean.
Sims, a wealthy businessman with an unusual flair for programming, has created a darknet-esque realm, ‘The Hideaway’ – essentially an old-time brothel with a few bloodcurdling twists. He wanted, as he calmly explains, a place where he could be himself: this self being someone who is attracted to children. With reasoning as candid as that, and with the children avatared by adults in the real world, it’s difficult not to be swayed by the possibility of a victimless crime. His argument, a familiar one from pornographers to Grand Theft Auto devotees, is that it’s better to blow off steam in this second world than cause havoc in the first. Bringing him in for questioning is a young detective, Morris, whose obsession with policing the far corners of the Nether is fuelled by her father’s immersion in it. Now her aim is to discover the location of Sims’ server in order to bring the law to his fantasy frontier town. But should the law’s reach extend to the imagination? How does Morris know so much about Sims’ moustachioed alter-ego, Papa? And will Sims prove more of a danger without his twisted sanctuary? Haley delivers a maximum amount of intrigue with the minimum amount of geek-speak.
As with any computer program, the design is the star of the show. The set at first reveals an interrogation room, as formless as the Nether is enticing. Then, through the terrific work of Luke Halls’ video design, we are taken inside the program, a glimmering world processed before our eyes. At Es Devlin’s sumptuously designed 1880’s country manor a shimmering landscape reflects tall, peaceful poplars and the strung floors of its exquisite interior. You can almost smell the snap peas and Swiss chard.
Almost. Yet the boughs of The Nether never quite bear fruit. There are tentative touches of beauty, even in the perverse relationship between Stanley Townsend’s avuncular Sims, an uneasy delight to watch, and Zoe Brough’s remarkable Iris. But the compulsion of the world and the pull of its strange family unit is not satisfactorily transmitted. Jeremy Herrin’s direction, though capable, tends to leave Amanda Hale’s fervent Morris in limbo, the staging of the interrogatory duologues somewhat listless and two-dimensional. Which may be the point. But even the fake world behind the real one never seems to shake off a sense of hollow joylessness.
Despite this gnawing vacuity there is a lovely recurring theme of our inability to relate to one another, neither through our virtual selves nor our temporary husks of flesh and stuttering synapse. The culmination of this is sweetly affecting, thanks greatly to David Beames’ timeless portrayal of Doyle. Indeed, to take from the text, we do love each other more than we can know, because we are forever fixed in the solipsistic question of ourselves.
This performance was preceded by one of the Royal Court’s excellent Big Idea talks, which saw Haley in conversation with Anthony Beech, a professor of Forensic and Criminological Psychology. This discussion, covering the consciousness-producing spindle neurons of whales and elephants (which we share) and the emergent intelligence of ants (which we do not) proved more nourishing than the play itself. Perhaps one day the Nether will win us over – till then the real world has more than enough questions to keep us occupied.