Review: Jennifer Haley’s The Nether, presented by Headlong, at the Royal Court Theatre Downstairs

Amanda Hale as Morris and Stanley Townsend as Sims. Photo Johan Persson

Amanda Hale as Morris and Stanley Townsend as Sims. Photo Johan Persson

– Don’t you feel pain?
– Only as much as I want to.
– And how much pain is that?
– That’s rather personal, don’t you think?

Words that are brazen, suspicious, suggestive. Even worse, this is the conversation between an adult and a child. Even worse, this is not quite true.

Jennifer Haley’s play assumes a world where we can go to hide. It’s The Nether and it’s virtual but other than that, each character defines it in a different way. No consequences, no pain, no sense of time, no limitations. These are the lies people tell to each other. The closest the virtual world imitates the physical one, the less escapism it offers. Isn’t that weird?

The play will be discussed as a play about pedophilia, but this is far too obvious an approach. It’s mostly about intimacy, and whether it can be achieved without moral choices and consequences. The characters try to evade reality and then demand it as a token from each other. “Is that your real name?”, “Is that a real tree?”. “Is that your real form?”. If the virtual world is as physical as the real one, what is reality? In the end, it’s all the things we have no control of: the name someone else chose for us, our biological making, the hurdles we have to overcome.

The virtual reality of the play is kept technologically simple, even naive, but that’s not a bad thing. Jennifer Haley creates a consistent clear idea that works more like a battlefield than a siren. Jeremy Herrin directs a war, not a flight of fancy. An added element of delicious friction is that theatre – by definition – is a physical universe. The actors and audience need to be present. A virtual reality created in the theatre is by definition a lie. Isn’t that the ultimate defeat?

Es Devlin designs the Nether as a shiny reflective version of nostalgia. It’s bright, warm but somewhat airless. You can hear the wind in the trees but you can’t feel the breeze. The transition between graphics and stage action is particularly effective, creating an almost illusory effect.

Stanley Townsemd brings smothering gravitas to the character of Sims, whose moral ambiguity is matched by irresistible self-composure. Amanda Hale as Morris vibrates with the struggle of some secret knowledge and David Beames as Doyle is touchingly worn down at the brink of the last adventure. Ivanno Jeremiah is vibrantly open and heartfelt as Woodnut and Zoe Brough is unnervingly self-assured as Iris (it’s hard to imagine a more difficult stage role for a child actor).

The Nether is a play about ideas, with the force of an army attacking a moral (Victorian) maze. Its brightness belies its secrets and its darkness belies its tenderness. It’s not what you think, it’s not where you think. But it is. Better get used to it.

Until 9 August at the Royal Court Downstairs. Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes without an interval.

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