Jennifer Haley’s The Nether explores an interesting and increasingly pertinent concept; the idea of catfishing, deception, and the diverse identities we adopt online. It explores the effect of new technologies and social platforms on our communication; how online platforms can immerse us where reality fails to capture our attention.
Morris (Amanda Hale), a law enforcement agent of some sort, we imagine, questions two men under suspicion of illicit acts in the Nether. Simms (Stanley Townsend), whose avatar is the warm yet sinister “Papa”, runs a server called The Hideaway where actions are without consequences; where paedophilia and murder are allowed, encouraged even. Better that this should happen online than in the real world, he says.
In this dystopian future, people can choose to fully “cross over” into a virtual world, leaving their friends and families behind for something which feels more perfect and more ‘real’ than life outside. This idea asks difficult questions; Morris talks about the difficulties of her father having been a ‘shade’, having crossed over rather than stay with her in the real world; yet images of The Hideaway are idyllic, beautiful, and almost untarnished in spite of its gruesome goings on.
Isabella Pappas, one of three child actors playing Iris, was the glue that held the show together, giving by far the most engaging performance, and drawing the audience into her emotional journey. Her portrayal contributed massively to the idea of The Hideaway as a utopia, and a place where people are free to do exactly as they please, without any concrete consequences. Despite what we know about The Hideaway and the acts that take place there, which most of us would find revolting, Pappas lends a real, and bizarre, innocence to the whole setting.
The production values are absolutely amazing: Es Devlin’s set is flawless, conveying the bleakness of reality with the spectacular beauty of the Nether. The sheer spectacle of the set design is absolutely wonderful, taking scenes of The Hideaway to another level. Luke Halls’s use of video is also very well done, capturing the confusion of a vast array of images and waves, and using cameras to invoke the idea of constant surveillance in an online age. The way in which video interacts with actors is also really impressive.
Although the concept caught my interest, exploring these ideas was often poorly executed and failed to engage me in much of the story. Although the two ‘nether’ characters, Iris and Woodnut, were lively and sympathetic, the same cannot be said for any of their counterparts (Ivanno Jeremiah). The character of Morris rarely behaves credibly, and both script and performance lack authenticity; too much was asked of me in suspending my disbelief, meaning I couldn’t identify with the character or any key plot points pertaining to her. Simms also lacks dimension, and nothing really drew me to Doyle (David Calder). Certainly the ideas are there, but they are so thinly fleshed out that for me there is nothing to provoke longer engagement.
This may well be intentional; to contrast the multi-dimensional humanity of the nether characters with the flatness of the real world characters can effectively demonstrate how it is possible to invest more of ourselves in the online world than in our physical surroundings. However, in reality I think this was more to do with some odd writing choices.
The hype surrounding The Nether paints it as the ultimate internet dystopia, and it doesn’t live up to its reputation. That said, it is an alright play, with some very strong production elements and decent performances, and worth seeing if the themes interest you.
The Nether is playing at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 25 April. For tickets and more information, see The Nether website.