The Nether

Laurence Green sees a dystopian vision of the future in Jennifer Haley’s dark new play The Nether at the Royal Court Theatre

The Nether

A virtual wonderland designed to cater for your every sexual fantasy is vividly evoked by American writer Jennifer Haley’s dark and disturbing new play The Nether (Royal Court Theatre), directed by Jeremy Herrin, in a co-production with Headlong.

The action is set in a dystopian future where many people spend much of their lives on the internet, now known as The Nether, where it is possible to experience such sensations as taste, smell and sex. But in the real world a tough female detective, Morris, has brought in for questioning the owner of a lucrative site called The Hideaway, where users, retaining their anonymity by adopting avatars, can indulge in sex with virtual children.

This works as both a serpentine crime drama and a haunting sci-fi thriller that explores the consequences of living out our private dreams. It is a piece which delves into the darkest corners of the imagination, and, in tackling the issue of child abuse, could not be more topical coming as it does hard on the heels of the convictions of Max Clifford and Rolf Harris and the arrest of more than 600 suspected paedophiles.

One of the most eye-opening things about the show is that in Es Devlin’s stunning design the online world has a magical reality. It’s Victorian-themed and conjures up a realm of mirrored glass and poplars as well as a rocking horse and doll’s house. There is even a welcoming proprietor called Papa who offers a beautiful virtual girl for the pleasure of his paying guests and after they have had sex with her, they are invited to slay her with an axe.

Herrin’s gripping production moves seamlessly between the stark interrogation room and the immersing, chilling website, while Haley’s dialogue has a shaped, poetic restraint and eloquent economy and makes the piece seem all too believable.

The play considers the theme of whether there is such a thing as a world without consequences. Do you have a right without impunity, to satisfy your desires in the guise of an avatar and in a form of existence where the victims of your perversions aren’t legal entities?

For anyone understandably wary of the subject matter, they can be reassured that the work features no sexually explicit or violent scenes and is all the more effective for it as the ominous atmosphere is created by suggestion rather than in-yer-face horrors.

Herrin draws splendid performances from his small cast, most notably Stanley Townsend, memorably sinister and devious as the owner of the determined cop, David Beames as the sad middle-aged science teacher whose only happiness is found in The nether, Ivanno Jeremiah as a fresh-faced punter and ten-year-old Zoe Brough as Iris, the girl on the site.

An alarming warning then of what the future could hold if the dangers of the internet go unchecked.

The Nether

Plays at the Royal Court Theatre until August 9.

Box office: 020 7565 5000


Pictures: Johan Persson

Last modified: April 7, 2021

Written by 11:57 am Theatre