If you had the chance to give up your real life, and become a completely different person - doing anything you wanted, without fear of consequences - would you do it?
This is one of the many questions posed by The Nether, now showing at the Duke Of York's Theatre a deeply disturbing and thought-provoking look at a not-too-distant future.
Set in the year 2050, The Nether considers a world where people live more in the virtual than the real, where it's literally possible to plug yourself into life support and exist forever online. And in that other life, you can be whoever you want, look the way you choose - and do anything you like, without punishment or reprisals. Because after all, if you're not physically doing something, it's not real, right?
Now, let me say up front: The Nether is not easy viewing. It involves people doing things that aren’t usually talked about (for good reason), and comes uncomfortably close to showing you those things, to the point where you're squirming in your seat and willing the scene to end. Some people may find it extremely difficult to watch; one of my friends certainly did. So if you’re concerned, I’d recommend doing a bit of research first, so you at least know what you’re getting into.
And yet. Everything about Jennifer Haley’s play is so perfect, courageous and mind-bendingly brilliant that instead of being horrifying, it's completely gripping. And it leaves you with a million questions, so much so that it actually keeps getting better after you leave the theatre. Questions like: if someone's going to do something bad, is it better to give them a place to do it where nobody gets hurt, rather than allow them to go free to do it in the real world? Maybe, you might say… but then is it true that nobody can be hurt in a virtual world? Is physical pain the only kind that counts? Which brings us back to - if you do something only in your imagination, are you really doing it? Is it the physical act that matters, or the decision to do it in the first place?
I could talk for days about all this, and more. So let's move on, and discuss the set, which is stunning. It moves seamlessly, through the use of futuristic graphics, from real to virtual world - with the latter ten times more vibrant and tempting than the former, even though each time you go there, you know something bad is going to happen. The Hideaway is a beautiful Victorian house, surrounded by lush, green trees, which have long since ceased to exist in the neglected real world. This, in contrast, is represented by a dark, bare room where Poppa, the creator of the Hideaway, is interrogated by a young detective, and where everyone seems to be angry or sad. Or both. Which world would you rather live in…?
The cast of five are divided between the two worlds, and united by the central figure of Poppa, played by Stanley Townsend. He’s charismatic and frighteningly rational - a man you desperately want to condemn, but can’t, because he hasn’t actually done anything. (Has he?) Townsend is joined in the real world by Amanda Hale’s relentless and sickened Detective Morris, and David Calder’s wretched former professor, put out of a job by the online world he now longs to join. Meanwhile, in The Nether, Ivanno Jeremiah and eleven-year-old Jaime Adler make a powerful but uncomfortable pairing, as they consider whether their relationship is real, even though they aren’t.
The Nether is a play that is difficult, and disturbing, and may give you weird dreams. (I speak from experience). It forces you to consider questions that nobody wants to think about, much less talk about, but that nonetheless are dangerously close to being all too relevant. That said, you could probably go and see The Nether just for the set alone. Exquisitely staged and acted, this is a play not to be missed - but it’s only on until 25th April, so book your The Nether tickets while you still can.