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‘There are some very dark things out there,’ says US playwright Jennifer Haley, ‘and I felt I had to out-dark them all.’
A year ago, nobody in the UK had heard of Haley and her futuristic work. Then the Royal Court and theatre company Headlong staged her remarkable ‘The Nether’, which has now transferred to the West End as the bravest, most shocking piece of art in London at the moment.
It’s a short, sharp detective thriller set in a future where the internet has evolved into a virtual reality world called the Nether. It’s about online ethics, but it goes straight for the jugular: it’s concerned with paedophilia, the great fear of our time, too hot for most writers to handle.
In it, intense detective Morris (Amanda Hale) tries to take down the Hideaway, a simulated world run by Stanley Townsend’s menacing Mr Sims in which the avatars of people from the real world have sex with and then brutally murder young children. The twist is that the children are the avatars of consenting adults. It is troubling, to say the least.
‘It started as an intellectual exercise,’ says Haley, ‘a kind of devil’s advocate for Mr Sims’s right to do something terrible in the Hideaway. I figured it’d have to be pretty egregious, because we already have “Grand Theft Auto”.’
If ‘The Nether’ was just an exercise in provocation, it wouldn’t have the force it does. Instead it smacks home like an express train, its visceral disgust and fury powered by awful things Haley unearthed during her research.
‘I found out there had been child avatars used in sexual situations in “Second Life”,’ she says, ‘and I discovered a Japanese videogame that lets you stalk a woman and her two pre-pubescent daughters, kidnap them and rape them. An actual game. It’s called “RapeLay”: Google it at your risk.
‘I was outraged and it stopped being an exercise. As a liberal you want to think people should be allowed to do what they want if they’re not hurting anyone. But how can our behaviour in the real world not be influenced by living out fantasies like these? If you inhabit an online identity do you become a different person? Or do you show a different side of yourself?’
These are the questions of our age: and ‘The Nether’ is the only play asking them.
‘The Nether’ is at the Duke of York’s Theatre until Apr 25