Jennifer Haley’s dystopian thriller about the future of the internet gets an Australian production
Where do we draw the line between online activity and IRL? That's the question at the heart of The Nether, Jennifer Haley’s thriller set in the not-so-distant future.
In Haley’s play, ‘The Nether’ is an evolved version of what we would know as the internet. People are increasingly spending more time online: universities are now almost exclusively located in the Nether, business is conducted there, and some people have become ‘shades’ – essentially hooking themselves up to life support systems and trading their body for their online persona, with its customised look and curated personality, where they feel free to be their truest selves.
Mr. Sims (Kim Knuckey) is known in the Nether as ‘Papa’, and the world he has constructed, the Hideaway, is designed to be a sanctuary for those who feel they can’t act on their true desires. From the outside, it’s all very idyllic: the Hideaway’s grand centrepiece is a beautiful Victorian home, where Papa lives with beaming children bedecked in era-appropriate ruffles and bows. Built with highly sophisticated programming code, his slice of online life boasts genuine sensation: when your virtual self touches someone’s face you can feel their skin; you can smell Papa’s cognac as he pours you a glass; the trees bend in the breeze. (“I miss trees,” a character says wistfully – suggesting that the physical world, left untended, has begun to die).
But the Hideaway isn’t just for nostalgia. The children are there to provide a specific, horrific purpose, and as we meet sweet, thoroughly groomed nine-year-old Iris (Danielle Catanzariti) it becomes clear what kind of depravities guests are paying for – and why a bloody axe hangs on the wall.
Detective Morris (Katie Fitchett) has been studying abuse, paedophilia, and lawlessness in the Nether for some time now. With evidence collected from an undercover agent, she hauls ‘Papa’ Sims in for questioning, alongside an elderly man named Doyle who has visited the Hideaway many times and is in the process of becoming a shade.
Haley’s play is a barrage of ethical questions, but the questions are more simplistic than they might appear at first glance: if an action is committed online, does it count as a real action? Is giving paedophiles an ostensibly consensual outlet for their behaviour a necessary strategy to avoid child abuse? Would we all commit crimes if we had the ability to do so guilt-free? When we meet a character called Woodnut (Alec Snow), he’s painted clearly as an ‘upright citizen’, but we see him falter when faced with this question: he puts his hand on Iris’ face and we know what he is about to do, because he can – or, sickeningly, because the little girl has asked him to touch her. It’s framed as seduction.
In this production, directed by Justin Martin, these questions remain unresolved and distant. While the play is written to encourage us to feel empathy for all involved parties and to challenge our own ethical positions on human impulses and behaviours, it places the burden of trauma and culpability on Morris rather than on the men who have created and participated in the Hideaway and other systemic cultures of abuse.
By his directorial choices, Martin follows through and exacerbates this victimisation: Morris is front and centre of her scenes, while Doyle and Sims are consistently seated and moved to the side. Presented in this way, she appears our natural guide into the play – and it follows that when she becomes involved in the Hideaway, she becomes our scapegoat for these acts, rather than those who have created the horrors she must investigate and grapple with.
Pip Runciman’s set design is a clever wall of screens (with surveillance-style video and ominous trees) and the suggestion of a house – it reaches out from the back of the stage and folds open like a pop-up book. Melanie Liertz’s costumes are period appropriate and horror-movie charming (all that white lace and dapper presentation to cover up the evil beneath).
The Nether is difficult to watch, and offers no resolution: if sexual abuse, violence, and paedophilia are triggering for you, give this play a miss. If you go in prepared to carry on the conversation and work through the issues on your own, you might get something of value from it, but as a piece of theatre, it’s not dramatically satisfying.
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