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Dark, Disturbing and Extraordinary. Review: The Nether, Royal Court Theatre

31/07/2014 11:16 BST | Updated 29/09/2014 10:59 BST

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The Nether is a dark, dystopian play that explores the worst of human behaviour in a world where we live almost entirely in a virtual reality. It is disturbing but it is compulsive viewing. You can't look away no matter how much you want to.

The Nether is set in the (probably, and rather worryingly) not too distant future where anyone and everyone can live vicariously through an avatar, where every experience and ever possibility can be explored.

Yet, much like Inception, the lines between reality and virtual existence have become blurred and some, obsessed with their virtual existence, are beginning to "cross over" to subsume themselves in their virtual existence completely.

This premise is powerful because it's believable. There's so much to explore in this set-up yet writer Jennifer Haley has focused specifically and deliberately on the darkest corners of this virtual universe, where adults grab the opportunity to explore their darkest, and criminal, fantasies.

The Hideaway is one of the darkest corners of The Nether, a paedophile's paradise created by a Mr Sims (a superb performance from Stanley Townsend) who provides his guests with the perfect getaway for them to explore every part of these darkest fantasies - the abuse and murder of children.

It may be distasteful, it may sicken us. In reality Mr Sims would be jailed for life. But in The Nether, is this activity safe? If you create an avatar and your avatar is a serial paedophile, is that a crime? And specifically, is a virtual paedophile as real a threat as one in reality?

Morris (Amanda Hale), a detective investigating The Nether, thinks so.

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Her opinion is that a crime online is as dangerous as a crime in reality and that there are always consequences, even if the participants kid themselves that this is a safe zone. As a result, she has tracked down the creator of The Hideaway, Mr Sims, and is interrogating him both with the aim to shut down The Hideaway, but also to expose possible similar activity in reality.

The Nether is a co-production between the Royal Court and Headlong. Directed by Headlong's Artistic Director Jeremy Herrin, the play has all the pace, energy and drive that are the hallmarks of his other shows such as Wolf Hall and This House. As a result, the piece grabs you and keeps you involved, hooked throughout.

As the play constantly moves back and forth between the emotional, anxious interrogation of Mr Sims in reality and the sinister idyll of The Hideaway, it would've been easy to lose or confuse the audience. Instead one of the biggest challenges facing this production is one of its biggest successes.

Portraying a virtual existence on stage could - and should - have been a nightmare. There is real discomfort when a production is reliant on video projections, and watching characters tap endlessly on keyboards is dull.

Instead, Jeremy Herrin and Es Devlin have created an extraordinary partitioned set where, the dark, functional interrogation room at the front of the stage is contrasted, as the partition dissolves, with a spectacular representation of The Hideaway.

The Hideaway is flooded with bright sunshine and it's filled with perfectly proportioned poplar saplings. In the centre is a perfectly pristine Edwardian-style existence where the children are innocent and naïve and enjoy nothing more than playing with white rocking horses, and paying with their guests.

The acting from the small cast of five is excellent but special mention must go to Isabella Pappas, the young girl who plays the much-desired 9-year old Iris, the fantasy child in The Hideaway who all the men crave.

As a young girl, protecting her from the darkest parts of this subject matter must have been difficult but her portrayal of this perpetually underage girl happily submitting herself to the whims and fantasies of the guests is extraordinary. Her ability to play both the innocence and the knowing was quite something. She gave one of the most impressive performances that I have seen on stage this year.

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But like Morris, as we see Iris entertain her guests, we are also battling with the question of whether this is ok. Is Iris safe? Is Iris real?

Jennifer Hayley's writing is sharp and well-balanced. At just 90 minutes, this production asks all the right questions yet deliberately leaves us with no easy answers, a pretty impressive achievement given the subject matter.

The Nether is a tremendous production, a cold, hard look at human behaviour. Two days later I still don't know how I feel about the questions posed, or whose side in the argument I am on.

Is virtual reality safe? I am still unsure. But what is it in us that compels us to create such a powerful alternative reality? What are we running from? And more worryingly, what are we running to?

I still believe passionately that the internet can be a force for good, a forum for profound and beneficial social change. But The Nether does not shirk away from the fact that there are corners of the human mind, and therefore of the virtual world, that are very dark indeed. How we deal with this, we still don't know.

Royal Court Theatre, London to August 9, 2014

Image credits:

1. David Beames (Doyle), Amanda Hale (Morris) © Johan Persson

2. Zoe Brough (Iris), Stanley Townsend (Sims) © Johan Persson

3. David Beames (Doyle), Stanley Townsend (Sims) © Johan Persson