The Nether (Duke of York's Theatre)
Jennifer Haley's play has transferred to the West End from the Royal Court
Short, dense, unpleasant: American playwright Jennifer Haley's 75-minute imaginative construct of a collision between an extreme internet world, an adult realm where you can live a life "outside of consequence," and a police campaign against paedophilia was a great hit at the Royal Court last year. It certainly breaks new ground, so I wish I'd liked it more on its transfer to the West End.
In a drab grey interview room (enlivened with a projected torrent of surveillance images) – the real world of moral enforcement? - Amanda Hale's investigator Morris clashes with a seedy entrepreneur Sims (Stanley Townsend). She wants to know where his server is. A debauched science teacher, Doyle (David Calder succeeding David Beames in the role), is one of Sims's clients in his parallel digital universe, a three-dimensional Victorian fantasy Alice-in-Wonderland world of poplar trees and "strange love."
There, another officer, Woodnut (Ivanno Jeremiah), has gone undercover and is an object of seduction for Sims's nine-year-old daughter Iris (Isabella Pappas on press night). Calder and Townsend – the one crumpled, soiled and apologetic, the other blustery and uncompromising (they rather resemble the poster imagery of John Lithgow and Alfred Molina in the new Strange Love movie) – are another variation on the "victim" and provider syndrome.
The sci-fi, cyberspace fantasy of the play obviously relates to what is happening in worlds both real and virtual. The creepiness of it all is deeply depressing, unless you really feel that these expansions of consciousness and experimentation on the web are inevitable and unavoidable.
So the play, in highlighting an ethical dilemma, and dramatising the interchange of ideas between "normal" and digital reality, is to some extent important. The next question, though, is whether or not the flagrancy of mixing new theatrical techniques of design - the set by Es Devlin and the video work of Luke Halls, lit by Paul Pyant, creating this Nether new world is simply stunning – with a moral enquiry into internet abuse, really delivers.
I don't think it does, while being intrigued by the attempt. Part of this stems from a wish – surely everyone agrees with this? - to see the nightmare we've created for ourselves in these extreme pornographic sites and chat rooms dispersed. At the same time, we can't go backwards. Is there a compromise way of living in amoral fantasy worlds? Woodnut is asked by his junior hostess if he'd like to start with an axe. Sims asks incredulously of his interrogator, "Don't tell me you've never had sex with an elf?"
It's funny, but it's horrible, too… in some ways, the play is upsetting in dealing with the understanding, or justification for, perverse sexual practices; in others, it's just plain upsetting, and not in a good way. Are the nether regions where we really want to reside? And if we don't, how are we going to stop everyone else? And should we want to? Go figure. Go see the play. But it's not much fun.