The Nether, Headlong’s brilliantly disturbing new play at the Royal Court, transgresses boundaries to challenge our deepest fears. Through the literally timeless beauty of a 9-year-old girl, played with compelling yet knowing innocence by Isabella Pappas, who shares the role of Iris with Zoe Brough, it forces us to confront possible and unacceptable futures. Director Jeremy Herring’s whole is dressed in a reality that is a virtual and yet at the same time a chilling verisimilitude of some of the darkest fantasies known to humankind. The American writer Jennifer Haley brings us this provocative play at a peculiarly appropriate time for our nation.
In one of those wonderful programmes that contain the script alongside the credits, it says the set is constructed by Miraculous Engineering. This company is aptly named. Es Devlin’s shimmering design of glass, trees and pretty Victorian quaintness combined with Luke Halls’ futuristic video effects pull our imaginations through the fourth wall into the criminal creation of Sims, or Papa. With all his appalling weakness, Stanley Townsend still makes us feel for him more than we could ever now feel for the likes of our recently convicted fallen celebrities, maybe because in Townsend we see a criminal who understands himself and is somehow honest, even though lost in his obscenity. He has retreated into his virtual creation, not only because it is infinitely preferable to real life, but also to protect the real world and its vulnerable children from what he is. This of course in no way makes him or his transgressions acceptable or forgivable. These are rendered with extreme care in this production but we are left in no doubt as to what is happening between the lines, as it were.
In a desperately unnatural reality shorn of its beauty, Papa uses futuristic technology to escape into a fantastical past. This world is called The Nether, a name that incidentally echoes the name of a “real” virtual world played in daily by thousands of children in Minecraft. The Nether at the Royal Court is a very different creation to the fiery red Nether of today’s computer game, which young gamers tell me is built of a substance called netherack. Both worlds are however in their own way hellish. Users can create their own world in Haley’s Nether, and it even has its own police force to bring criminals to book.
The criminals are people who break the rules. They are punished by having their log-ins removed, for all eternity. This forces them to live out the rest of their lives in the hell of the real world. People get addicted and will do anything to avoid their drug of choice being removed. They can even cross over forever into The Nether. These people’s bodies turn into mummified horrors as they remain on life support, their minds fully absorbed into the computer landscape.
Amanda Hale is the police inspector, Morris, and how wonderfully self-righteous she is in her pursuit of Papa, until she’s not. She is also in pursuit of another user, Doyle, a pathetic creature given us by David Beames, and between them they pull off a show-stopping plot turner that had this audience gasping in our seats. There was an absolute stand-out performance from Ivanno Jeremiah as Woodnut. I completely believed his character, and was left reeling by the cleverness of Haley’s Shakespearean plot device. Seeing him afterwards, by chance, in the bar, I could barely see the actor, so engrossing and convincing was his character.
Is something acceptable when it is just fantasy, and when does dark fantasy cross a boundary to become unacceptable reality? We are still in the early days of the internet and everyone is aware of the dark side. Few, if any, have the answers. But this play certainly asks the questions.
Review by Ruth Gledhill
Cast: Amanda Hale as Morris, Stanley Townsend as Sims, David Beames as Doyle, Ivanno Jeremiah as Woodnut, Zoe Brough as Iris, Isabella Pappas as Iris.
Creatives: Writer Jennifer Haley, Director Jeremy Herrin, Set Designer Es Devlin, Costume Desgner Christina Cunningham, Lighting Designer Paul Pyant, Composer Nick Powell, Sound Designer Ian Dickinson for Autograph, Video Designer Luke Halls.
Royal Court Theatre
17th July to 9th August 2014
For full listings and tickets visit:
Thursday 24th July 2014