Initially, the performances start off a little stiff; I wasn’t sure whether this was because of the virtual world or simply because the play starts with the debate being played out in an interrogation room, as Investigator Morris (Amanda Hale) interrogates Sims (Stanley Townsend) who in his virtual persona as Papa runs a place called The Hideaway, a retreat for paedophiles. Sims argues that the role-play allows him to contain his fantasies to his imagination; Morris believes that in the brave new world of The Nether, where sensation has been perfected to the point where it feels like reality, a crime committed there should face the same punishment as a real-world crime.
Although the back and forth dialogue is interesting, it is when we get to explore The Hideaway that the debate has real emotional impact. Playwright Jennifer Haley was clever in characterising The Hideaway not as a futuristic dream world but a Victoriana Eden, with Sims’ favourite girl Iris (Perdita Hibbins) as an innocent who enjoys playing jacks. The idea that people using virtual reality want to retreat into a world without modern technology is intriguing. It would have been very easy to create some depraved dungeon in order to hammer home the sexual perversions of the characters but Haley generally steers clear of cliché.
The strength of the production is in the use of projections and video to indicate the switch from reality to virtual reality. Though these are visually impressive, it doesn’t distract from the play but enhances it- without a convincing virtual world, The Nether would simply have been a concept. Using mirrors to give greater dimensions to The Hideaway meant that the design was genuinely done in the way that would look most convincing to an audience rather than fancy computer work.
The performances are all very good; I thought Amanda Hale was particularly strong. It’s rare to have a strong female character that doesn’t get by on wiles and wit and as the play progresses her character becomes even more complex. Her monologue in which she reads out undercover agent Woodnut’s report after he has indulged in one of Papa’s recommended activities is chilling. Reading the play beforehand adds another layer to the speech; there are some twists that are obvious and yet you don’t put two and two together until later. There were nuances to Hale’s performance prior to the twists that I think I would have missed had I not already known. David Calder as Doyle, a friend of Papa, adds some humanity to a character which is in some respects a little cliché and his later scenes are desperately sad.
Though the topic of paedophilia is the controversy that may bring in audiences, the play is more about how the internet will shape our identities and lives as technology evolves. Paedophilia is a minefield topic and Haley navigates it well, not tiptoeing around it but similarly not preaching. Surprisingly the play doesn’t feel exploitative, either in the treatment of paedophilia or the dangers of virtual reality. Hopefully future writers can continue tapping the potential of virtual reality as a subject for plays.
As it’s a play that you probably can’t afford to go back and see again, I’d recommend buying the script at the theatre- at £5, it’s half the RRP and has a much nicer cover than the normal edition.