If it is not surprising that there are aspects of the modern world that barely exist on the stage – the sheer ubiquity of mobile phones, the centrality of TV and increasingly the internet to our lives – it doesn’t mean that this is a position that shouldn’t go unchallenged. It is true that traditionally these objects and our interaction with them have been seen as profoundly un-theatrical; they are products that led us to insularity and internal monologues, they are still and render us likewise. However it is up to theatre to challenge these assumptions
So to see The Nether, a play that tackles the internet – or at least a future-net – on the main stage at the Royal Court is a welcome sight. That it is supported by snazzy graphic designs (Luke Halls) which blur the transition from the real to the virtual world signals that some thought has gone into how to dramatise such a personal, internal activity – and, once again, it showcases just how far technical effects for the theatre have come.
It follows hot on the heels of Privacy at the Donmar and, whilst covering very different ground, they share an attempt to demonstrate that theatre is a medium that can not only engage with human and social issues but also has a role in challenging audiences on the technological issues that are increasingly blurring the boundaries between internal and external thought and action.
To describe the plot risks giving away rather too much of what makes the play an interesting watch. Although since the Royal Court refers to the fact that it is about a ‘virtual wonderland’ and that it covers ‘paedophilia in a digital world’ it doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to recognise that this is a play that, in the words of a BBC voiceover, ‘some viewers may find offensive’.
That said this reviewer is surprised to hear talk of walkouts from the audience; whilst the concept may be distasteful, the production itself is pretty clean-cut and there is nothing that comes close to Blasted or Ubu in terms of disturbing visual imagery. In fact if anything the casting of the child actor (Zoe Brough as Iris – and exceptionally good in the role with a stunning, and quite disturbing, maturity) has perhaps restricted how far they could push the elements that people would find most troubling.
There are a number of problems with the play. Despite the sterling work of Luke Hall’s visual imagery and the wonderful Victoriana set design by Es Devlin, the play never rids itself of very static direction. This is not helped by the writing that turns every other scene into a dialectic between two sides of the argument, and setting these conversations in an interrogation room leaves very little freedom for movement.
Jennifer Haley’s script has nice touches but is also surprisingly weak in a number of areas; the core problem is that Haley strives for balance between her characters in order to create a ‘debate’ and make the play something more than a moralising rant. However the challenge of creating balance when one character is clearly morally repugnant has been tackled by making the ‘other’ appear artificially weaker and flawed. The balance is upset because Amanda Hale’s Morris has been nobbled from the get-go and will never match the personality given to Stanley Townsend’s Sims. As a side-note, it is almost impossible to believe that these names aren’t supposed to evoke the world of Pinter but sadly the dialogue itself falls rather short of this.
It is mostly reminiscent of the kind of play that G.B. Shaw would have written; a subtle interplay between legitimate positions, in which the world of freedom is balanced against the world of established moral order. This link is reinforced by the Victoriana set that inevitably takes us back to the world of J.M Barrie and Charles Dodson, and that curious attitude towards the pure innocence of children that masked deeper and darker repressed urges (or so we are led to believe from the woefully poor Peter and Alice).
A Shavian debate play is in no way a bad thing but everything needs to be pretty much spot-on or the audience begins to spot the flaws in the arguments, and will hear the voice of the playwright arguing with themselves for dramatic effect rather than using the stage as a tool for the enlightenment of the audience.
The production’s biggest crime is that it doesn’t respect the tradition its writing in. There is very little science-fiction that makes it to the stage, and it is possibly that there won’t be many science-fiction fans coming to see the play. However if they do then I suspect they will be as unimpressed as this reviewer was with the flawed logic that underpins it.
The crucial aspect of science-fiction is that you have to believe in a world that has been created before your eyes. If you set forward an idea then it needs to be grounded in its own internal logic, and even if that logic is palpably absurd then you still take it on trust that it works if the story sticks with it.
The problem with The Nether is that this debate is not a new one and has been addressed in a much more comprehensive manner than this. This is highlighted in the numerous minor quibbles that should have been addressed in advance. For instance we are expected believe that a major multinational (multigovernmental?) corporation runs The Nether but a seemingly ordinary guy has developed a code that is more advanced than anything they can come up with, or can even imagine creating. They are able to steal his log-in details and so wipe his account but they can’t find a way to hack into his server? Also why have they made a decision to act as a moralising force on The Nether, as it flies in the fact of everything we know about the extreme libertarian instincts of every major technology player?
Each of these problems are small but do require the playwright to have considered them and, even if they are not answered directly on stage, there should be an unwritten logical coherence that has informed the writing. The suspicion is that the concept for the play came first (and it is a good one) and once the problems in its construction became apparent a decision was made to press ahead rather than revert back to examine first principles. This ultimately is a failure of the dialectic method that it employs, and also of the logic systems that The Nether will have been built on.