SEAT AT THE BACK - SCRIBBLES! ~ Films on the Seat at the Back playlist right now: KIDS IN LOVE; JUNE; CURVE; WILD, BARELY LETHAL; GODDESS OF LOVE; THE VATICAN TAPES .. What a night in!

Sunday, 14 September 2014

'THE NETHER' at the ROYAL COURT THEATRE // 'You have every right to feel uneasy . . '


I would like to tell you that I am still Mark Gordon Palmer, writing a review of THE NETHER by Jennifer Haley, unfortunately I can't.

This play (multi-award winning) was performed at the Royal Court Theatre in London, July/ August 2014, and has a small cast of five main characters.

There's cyber-crime investigator Morris who we follow from the start, in a small room, with a table in front of her all flickering with activity - access to the hidden corners of the internet she is intent on exposing. On the giant backdrop behind her, there are close-ups from every angle of the people she is interviewing on the other side of the table, as well as random images from within the Nether.

Morris may be played by Amanda Hale (ice-cold, calculating and deeply flawed - vulnerable). Or she may not be. She may be real. Or she may not be.

And the man on the other side of the table? He's called Mr Sims. A big, blustery American with a distinctive moustache that drips down either side of his lips like a sorrowful threat. He owns a part of the Nether, a place that is legal despite the kind of extreme, illegal (back in real life) experiences he offers. In beautiful, idyllic country settings and in a house full of chandeliers and elegant dining tables and exquisite bedrooms, he offers you the chance to meet a young girl. But the girl is there to indulge your every desire. And if you don't like her anymore - and you are, in the end, not supposed to - then an axe waits by the side of the bed.

I would like to tell you that I am still Mark Gordon Palmer, writing a review of THE NETHER by Jennifer Haley, unfortunately I can't.

There's another man who visits the Nether. He's called Doyle. You don't want to know about the character he takes on. You wouldn't believe me if I told you. But he's there to enjoy himself in privacy and do things that he couldn't do back home. As Mr Sims says - experiencing the virtual reality of perversion and criminality saves the real world from having to tackle 'real' offenders.  Morris isn't convinced. She thinks some activities that break taboos, even in a virtual landscape, should be stopped. Mr Sims tells her that he once had desires for the daughter of a friend who lived near him. There was one time - he was tempted to act on his desires. He stopped himself by inventing a place where such thoughts are made real, but is also not real. (A recent report in the media tells of a virtual girl created by police to trap paedophiles who believe in the deception - a timely reminder that the future in this script isn't so far away.)

And then there's the hesitant, reserved, but always professional Woodnut. He works for Morris as an investigator of the Nether. Volunteering to visit the world of beautiful landscapes and country houses of the kind rarely seen in real life anymore. He also gets to meet with the young girl - Iris. He is allowed to interact with her and be seduced - even allowed to kill. It's all in the name of investigative licence. But as Mr Sims says - it may be virtual reality, but if the world he has created (this playpen of perversion) is real enough to be punished and banned, then shouldn't Woodnut's integration into the activities the place offers be punished as well (after all - everyone in there is choosing their own identity; one they wouldn't dare have at home)?

There's another problem - Woodnut is finding himself increasingly captivated by the young girl in the white dress and the blue ribbons in her hair. They may all be playing roles. But what most of these people don't realise, is that, in the Nether - everyone may be telling a lie. The land of dreams is about to play its cruellest card and the tangled mess of budding relationships in this virtual landscape (that they all have a role to play within) may not be as real (or, even stranger - as immoral) as they all may think. Prepare for some of the most startling, shocking twists ever witnessed on the stage. Prepare to have all your opinions challenged or at least heightened - and your mind well and truly bended.

I would like to tell you that I am still Mark Gordon Palmer, writing a review of THE NETHER by Jennifer Haley, unfortunately I can't. I am someone else. Pretending to be someone who liked the play. The play that I thought was so good, was not even the play that I actually went to see. It pretended to be something else. Does that mean it's no longer good. Even though I experienced it. Or can illusions be more real than the very things they imitate - or steal from?
Can we value forgery if it's better than the original or enjoy the taste of fine wine condensed into a synthetic tablet if it tastes better than the real thing. Or be close friends with a virtual companion who changes their beliefs to suit our own if their real identity away from the keyboard is the person we would most choose to avoid - or be enemies with. And is murder of a virtual person - if it still feels totally real - better than carrying out such an act in real life. Or if it feels real enough, is the intent - and the crime - still punishable by law?

I only want to tell you this:
The Nether confronts perceptions about the nature of reality and the immersing of some of us in a world of pretend so easily accessible in a society stuffed with technology - a virtual landscape that can allow those within to even feel sensation without actually having to sense anything for real (technology in existence today but no doubt widespread within a few years). The very fact we are declaring virtual sensations and sensory suits or teledildonic devices and the technologasm (all worth a Google) as 'the future' will soon seem laughably old-fashioned. If the sensations feel authentic,  then maybe the Nether has become a real place - real enough anyway. More real than here (where we no longer even have trees to sit among - the countryside exists for real, but only in the Nether now).

When those virtual sensations break taboos and acceptable behaviour, become increasingly perverse and criminal and blur lines with the non-virtual world - are they still punishable. Even if they don't actually happen in the place we would call 'real'. And anyway, if your 'real life' is spent somewhere else and more time spent in that virtual place than back 'here' (and all sensations felt are replicated precisely in the Nether, even when holding an axe - the blueprint for this authenticity a cause of concern for Morris and her team) - then has your reality changed so much that your virtual life is more valid than any other?

Writer Jennifer Haley adds more of a twist - what if the person you are, changes to be someone else and you are then loved as that person, or hated, or abused. Not just a new name but a whole new identity made 'real'. What then? Which one is now the real you?
Traps to catch paedophiles online through virtual characters that aren't real - taking on identities that hook offenders in, are different to the characters pretending to offer the same thing in the Nether. In this place, everyone knows the characters are not real. There is no trap - the characters entirely virtual. The unease felt in this play is over who the little girl Iris may - or may not - be based on in real life.


Direction (Jeremy Herrin) and Set Design (Es Devlin) is outstanding for a play shown in such a small theatre with a limited budget. It's actually overwhelming. The transition between real world and fictional/ virtual is magical and sinister and jaw-dropping - just like a perfect sci-fi movie shown on the big screen. Flawless. And the set design - all glass floors and mirrors and brightly-lit bedrooms and woodland that seems to merge into one, but also retain its own identity, are simply addictive in execution and special effect. When we get to those moments where we know we are about to go through to that mysterious realm of the Nether, we crave that point of contact and don't ever disbelieve what's happening before our eyes. Because we are - literally - there as well.
Also involved in creating the Nether are lighting designers Paul Pyant and Marec Joyce (and light is one of the most memorable elements of the glittering set design that feels like being inside the heart of a chandelier - a facet of the Nether experience no doubt intentional for punters), video designer Luke Halls, and costume designer Christina Cunningham (creating the perfect lord of the manor outfits for clients to the Nether to feel important in and the creepy girl costume for young Iris).

Performances are terrific all round but the naïve Woodnut (Ivanno Jeremiah) with a penchant for corruption, entirely stupid enough to fall in love (forbidden, criminal love) when he knows he has to remain professional and not be tainted and seduced by the world he is forced inside (and that's slowly enforcing his escape from humdrum reality) is a man that reeks of cold sweat and determined distaste - a modern day Humbert Humbert. 
The central controlling figure of Mr Sims (Stanley Townsend) expels cold cruel logic like a modern-day Hannibal Lecter while 11-year-old Isabella Pappas as Iris is a sinister creation of warped efficiency, seeping with provocation - the cheerful ease with which she offers herself, or an axe, to the predators visiting her realm (or prison) turns the blood upsettingly cold in an incredibly focused and calmly spirited performance that could lead to future movie success one day (alternating her portrayal of the character with Zoe Brough, who has also received rave reviews for her own interpretation). David Beames as creepy Doyle, quite worryingly breaks the heart.

The Nether is a work of deep thought and sickly horror in the vortex of a spectacular whirlpool of outrageously good stage design and free-flowing, perfectly poised direction. It's a carnival of madness and a sideshow of enraging delights. I've never seen anything like it. Cinematic in approach, visually flawless and confrontational - this play is the future of theatre and a justification for its survival in a modern age of multimedia. You have every right to feel uneasy. The theatre box office, less so.

I have deleted this review. What you are left with are words that have been allowed to choose their own conclusion. These words may hate what they have seen - or decide to never tell you their thoughts.

Words: Mark Gordon Palmer

PICS: © Headlong Theatre

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