'The Nether' review or 'Can we re-program this thing?'

The Nether, Jennifer Haley
Royal Court Theatre, 28th July 2014

Welcome to the Nether! The Nether is an online world – far more advanced than the so-called internet – that is so engaging and appealing that mass online-immigration looks imminent. Nestled within this Netherland is the Hideaway, a Victorian fantasy world where users can act on their darkest desires, particularly those involving pretty young girls. But The Hideaway is a separate world – ‘a world without consequence’ - so where’s the harm in a little virtual indulgence?  

Jennifer’s Haley’s deeply disturbing new play, ‘The Nether’, uses the case of an online paedophile community to explore the moral, philosophical and existential implications of the meteoric rise of the internet. The play opens in a blacked-out interrogation room, where online investigator Morris (Amanda Hale) is questioning Sims (Stanley Townsend), who is programmer and ‘papa’ of online community, the Hideaway. Morris is charging Sims with rape, sodomy and murder – but Sims doesn't seem too worried. After all, his ‘crimes’ have all taken place online and not a single ‘real’ body has been harmed in the process. What crime, then, has Sims actually committed?

With the help of a dazzling set from Es Devlin and a fluid and fearless production from Jeremy Herrin, ‘The Nether’ examines the ethical dilemmas posed by a world lived increasingly online. With people spending more and more time on the internet (in the play, Papa spends 14 hours a day nurturing his online community), which world is in fact our reality? After all, the Hideaway is so sophisticated that it engages all the senses of its ‘occupants’. Online users ‘taste’ the food they eat online. They feel the wind in their hair and they hear the chatter of birdsong. They even fall in love. What, then, separates these two worlds? And if they really are so similar, shouldn't they play by the same ‘rules’?  

Designer Devlin and director Herrin create a stark contrast between the online world – seductive and boundless – and the bleak ‘reality’ of ‘real-life’. When Morris interrogates Sims, the two sit in a black room, with grey and fractured images flickering behind them. But when the action shifts to the ‘Hideaway’, we find ourselves in a world bursting with colour and light and fantasy.

This is one of the first shows to depict the internet as we ‘feel’ it rather than see it – and what an important distinction that is! ‘The Nether’ shows the internet not as an on-screen world, as something flat and merely ‘additional’ to real-life – but a dazzling domain, as limitless as our imaginations.  As the action jumps between the interrogation room and the Hideaway, the giant back-wall screen opens up to reveal a room surrounded by a wall of mirrors, which reflect a never-ending tangle of trees. Inside these mirrors is a young girl’s dream bedroom, complete with a beautiful dollhouse and exquisite gramophone. It is a space of endless possibility; a world without limits.   

In between each transition, a series of blueprints are projected onto the screen at lightning speed (nifty work from video designer Luke Halls). In just a few seconds, we watch a few white lines build and build, until what was just an idea becomes a complete and perfect image; a dream house, with a porch and glistening green grass or an idyllic field . Each time, a sparkling and convincing location is sketched out with terrific speed and skill.

There is something fearful about the pace at which these online worlds are conjured up. The constant nods to the Victorian era, throughout Haley’s play, remind us of the gradual stages of development that our own planet has gone through across the centuries; periods of adjustment, growth, mistakes and learning. But the internet is a domain of instantaneous development – with precious little time for the emergence of rules, structures or moral codes. And such rapid development, with so few pauses, must and will have some frightening and unforeseen consequences somewhere along the way.  

It isn't just the environment that is made to seem more complete and more persuasive online – it is the people too. Cramped in the interrogation room, Townsend’s Sims looks like a caged animal. But released into his own online community, Sims becomes a ‘better’ version of himself. Terrifyingly, Sims becomes strangely charming in this disturbing world of his own creation. When Sims talks with the young girl, Iris – the star of his online community – he speaks in a deep smooth voice, wise and strong. In this world, despite his sins, Sims is the best version of himself that he can hope for.  

Gradually, we discover the connection between the characters trapped in the interrogation room and those roaming ‘free’ in Sims’ online community. A strange and coiled up man, Doyle (David Beames), flinches at Morris’ questions and speaks in a fragile whisper. This is a man who seems so uncomfortable in his own body, so ill at ease with the real world , that he can barely open his eyes. What is so startling about this play is that, despite the abuse that we later discover Doyle receives online, in some ways he seems happier there. For all that we might judge Doyle’s online behaviour as ‘wrong’ – and Sims’ manipulation of Doyle as corrupt – have they perhaps found their own form of happiness? Is there a freedom of expression about a life online which, despite its perversity, might have some shred of good about it?

Near the end, Sims argues for the positive potential of his online community and the shelter it provides for people with ‘sick’ urges they cannot stop. He sees his Hideaway as a dark holding space – a retreat for those who cannot find a space for themselves and their desires in the real world. Morris, disgusted and weary, replies: ‘The real world is still the place we have to learn to live in.’ But as the internet bleeds into everything we do, just where does the ‘real’ world end and the online world begin – and who is in charge of the program?