Picking plays which delve into the darkest recesses of the human psyche, appears to be somewhat of a speciality for Director Chris Durnall, and The Nether is no exception. The futuristic world we are now populating is deftly and swiftly established; ‘In-world’ lives are slowly dissolving now the internet has morphed into an advanced virtual reality inhabited by online users known as ‘Shades’. New ‘Realms’ have been created, the most sinister of which is ‘The Hideaway’, which provides the opportunity for paedophiles to indulge their proclivities without consequence.
Centred on one of the most taboo subjects, Company of Sirens and good cop bad cop, have made a bold move in tackling Jennifer Haley’s controversial play, but under Durnall’s direction, the cast pull off an artful execution of an extremely difficult topic. With such a subject, a pervading sense of perversion is inevitable and the entirety of the performance treads a razor thin line. That paedophilic behaviour is taking place is incontrovertible, but The Nether always stops short of obscenity, mercifully sparing us the physical manifestation of any explicit actions.
The calculated casting serves to instil a strong sense of unease from the aesthetic element alone; John Rowley, as the perversely named ‘Papa’, towers above 5’1” Non Haf who plays his favourite child, Iris. Rowley’s extremely sinister air contrasts perfectly with Haf’s authentic innocence, driving the audience to the very edge of comfortable discomfort. A number of intimate gestures heighten the malaise; tender face stroking, spontaneous embraces and playful dancing with Iris balanced on the tips of a guest of ‘The Hideaway’s’ shoes. Each normally unremarkable action takes on a sickening significance, when placed in such a context.
Good cop bad cop’s staging is extremely minimalistic, leaving the actors completely exposed to the, admittedly infrequent, small slip ups in the delivery of their lines. For the most part, the cast are eloquently in control; Stacey Daly is poised and deliberate in her role as detective, pulling in suspects in her quest to shut down ‘The Hideaway’, providing an effective contrast to Richard Huw Morgan; jittery and ashamed in his role as a guest named Woodnut, visiting Iris for the first time.
The Nether brings a surprising beauty to a subject ugly in the extreme, providing a fusillade of philosophical musings on morality, the definition of reality, the realms of imagination and the dangers of a world absent rules or consequence. People are encouraged to do terrible things in ‘The Hideaway’. But if there is no consequence, is there any meaning? If there is meaning, does that make you a monster? Without consequence, have you done something, or nothing? The Nether is full of compelling and complex questions such as these.
Whilst the script has a dark yet delicate beauty, the transitions between The Nether and the real world feel slightly clumsy, hindered by the small space in which the play is staged. A bigger venue would allow for a more complex set, and would allow us to be truly immersed in The Nether. Engaging the audience at a higher level, rather than remaining spectators, still somewhat removed from the horror, would have a profound effect in such a play.
Rowley has taken on an exceptionally challenging role as Papa, and manages to provoke a disconcerting conflict of emotion as disgust battles with pity, for this man who has been “cursed with both compulsion and insight”. He makes a chilling argument for his creation of ‘The Hideaway’, presenting himself almost as a dark anti-hero, who has chosen the path of virtual immorality to save children in the real world. Whilst this content is fictional and taken to the extreme, the questions it raises are sadly far from irrelevant. Are sites set up for such purposes a horrifying but necessary evil to the alternative, or do they create a culture of legitimisation?
With technology moving so rapidly, and the increasing popularity of virtual reality headsets, the concepts presented within The Nether, which may have seemed fantastical just a decade or so earlier, are edging ever closer to realisation, with a terrifying sense of inevitability. Humanity needs to be prepared if ever it finds itself on the brink of entering a hideaway of its own.