Jennifer Haley's smart, thrilling play serves as a stark warning about the future of the internet.
In Jennifer Haley’s smart sci-fi thriller, ‘The Nether’ is the future of the internet and it’s moved on from cat memes. It’s a high-tech digital world where you can live in a virtual reality and commit crimes without consequence. Forget Kim Kardashian’s bum – this is true internet horror.
Plays dealing with humanity’s more abhorrent urges don’t shout ‘guaranteed crowd puller’. Props, then, to super producer Sonia Friedman, for getting this excoriating Headlong production transferred to the West End following a run at the Royal Court last year. ‘The Nether’ is an unsettlingly relevant piece of work, a detective thriller exploring moral issues in the burgeoning relationship between humans and technology.
The play moves between two worlds. The first is a dull reality, where detective Morris interrogates grey-haired Sims about the whereabouts of the server for his virtual realm, The Hideaway. The second is Sims’ realm. People log in to spend time – literally smelling, touching, tasting – in a beautiful, and very real, Victorian country manor house and are encouraged to hurt, rape and viciously murder four charming children that live there. But the children always re-spawn, and to complicate things even more, they too are the avatars of adults who have plugged in from the real world.
Amanda Hale is excellent as Morris, taut, relentless and intent on destroying something she thinks is very wrong. Sims believes the contrary, as nobody actually gets harmed. Which is right at the heart of ‘The Nether’: does feeling or imagining a vicious act, make it real? It’s an extension of a question that emerges today whenever a child massacres their classmates and people ask if video games, or films, can brutalise someone. Here, in a world where digital life can replace a life itself – something we’re perhaps not really that far from – that question takes on a whole new dimension.
Though the ideas are explicit, what happens on stage isn’t. Debate makes up a lot of this play – which has more twists than the Nemesis at Alton Towers – and the arguments are electrifying.
Jeremy Herrin’s slick production is driven by an extraordinary set design from Es Devlin and video from Luke Halls. Halls’ futuristic, ‘Big Brother’ projections zoom in on parts of the faces of Morris’s interviewees, and Devlin creates the layers of different worlds by using a clever system of mirrors and moving screens. It looks, as Sims’s world is designed to, seductively and disarmingly gorgeous.
‘The Nether’ is a relentlessly gripping, entertaining play. But it’s also an unnerving dystopian vision of the future and a stark warning of where we may be headed.