The Nether: dwelling in darkness
Where does fantasy end and reality begin? That’s the question at the heart of Jennifer Haley’s play The Nether, currently the darling of both the West End and Broadway. Set in 2050, it portrays a world where the internet has developed into a complex virtual-reality other-world called the Nether, replete with its own police force and ethical dilemmas. The play follows an investigation into a sinister, unmapped corner of the Nether where a wealthy programmer (‘Papa’) has created a sophisticated world where paedophiles can fulfil their fantasies with ultra-realistic avatars of children. Is this world a ‘safe space’ for ‘broken people’ to fulfil their wretched desires without harming any real children, or a sordid legitimisation of child abuse and a gateway to real-world harm?
Against the backdrop of discussions about regulating the ‘dark web’ and the often comical attempts to censor online porn – leading to an amusing ‘face-sitting protest’ outside parliament last year – there’s no doubting the play’s topical edge. There’s a certain irony, too, in watching a play about the limits of fantasy and representation on the London stage, which waged its own war against the moral guardianship of the Lord Chamberlain less than half a century ago.
The Nether is certainly a brave attempt to explore the dilemmas posed by the internet, and it doesn’t shy away from the disturbing nature of its subject matter. Later in the play, a child actor actively seduces an adult one, amid the pervy Alice In Wonderland-style setting of Papa’s imagination. Even allowing for the knowledge this is taking place several layers from reality, it makes for deeply discomforting viewing. In today’s paranoid climate – in which the police were happy to march into the Tate Modern in 2009 to take down an equally suggestive photograph of Brooke Shields – it is an artistically brave and unprurient move.
Weighing in at a punchy 80 minutes, Headlong Theatre’s production offers an imaginative staging of the jittery nature of online interaction: leaping from intense debates over politics to emotional outbursts of despair, interspersed with in-your-face titillation and kneejerk moral judgements. John Grisham’s clumsy attempt last year to explain how the temptations of the internet could cause a distracted mind to make some very poor decisions led to his own inevitable Twitterstorm and public apology, yet The Nether convincingly shows how a consequence-free fantasy world can have some serious real-world ramifications.
But while Haley’s script raises some very disconcerting questions about virtual morality, The Nether is frustratingly short of any answers. Having forced us to look (imagined) child abuse starkly in the face for an hour, the play suddenly switches tack, posing questions about why adults are so desperate to escape into their online ‘second life’. This is certainly an important question, but sadly not given anywhere enough time. And you don’t need to imagine a little girl getting raped and dismembered – a recurring image of the play – in order to ponder it.
In fact, as Haley puts it in her programme notes, she wanted to explore the question through the prism of something ‘that was so awful we still wouldn’t stand for it’. You sense that the question she can’t bear to tackle, although it lingers unspoken throughout, is why the acts and desires of a depraved minority exercise the moral imagination of the many. Why does society look to these ‘broken men’, not as pitiable freaks, but as a warped reflection of society? When man’s wickedness is the measure of all things, who wouldn’t wish to retreat into a fantasy land?
The Enlightenment philosopher Denis Diderot, expressing similar fears about what the unregulated theatre could do to man’s imagination, wrote that drama must ‘inspire a love of virtue and a horror of vice’. Sadly, The Nether spends so long conjuring the horror that it only tantalises with the prospect of virtue. Nonetheless, it is an admirable attempt to produce a thoughtful, challenging work that cuts through so much of the online chatter.
David Bowden is a columnist for spiked.
The Nether is at the Duke of York’s theatre in London until 25 April.