The Nether is a play about virtual realities which forces the audience to consider dark themes in an original way, one in which the answers are never as straightforward or as comfortable as one might hope. From the moment I entered the cosy venue at Northern Stage to the moment the small cast took their bows I was mesmerised and completely seduced by what was on offer here.
An atmosphere is created by the set and music which gives the audience a taste of what to expect before the show even begins. A dimly lit stage with futuristic, laboratory-like props and eerie music really sets the scene. Space, the supernatural and the feeling of being trapped in an unknown place are feelings which immediately spring to mind. The chills down this reviewer’s back where probably due to the northern weather she was in just moments before but it certainly added to the effect.
And so the show began. The central character of Mr Sims is immediately introduced, a stern-looking man in Victorian dress who speaks and moves guiltily. He is under questioning by Detective Morris, in her white, two-piece suit and scraped back hair. The two sit opposite each other in what the audience quickly understands to be an intense game of cat and mouse which will play out across the duration of the play.
With wonderfully powerful performances from Christopher Theobald and Charlotte Wood, we are taken on a journey through ‘The Hideaway’, Sims’ personal world in what is known as ‘The Nether’ – an expanding network of virtual reality realms. It is almost immediately revealed that Sims is the bad guy – or is he? He detaches himself from the real world in order to live “a life outside of consequence”, where he and others can “blow off steam” in order to avoid imposing their urges on the innocent lives of others.
We soon realise that he is actually a paedophile. He confesses to an aborted sexual assault on a child in which he refrains from carrying out the act when he sees the terror in his victim’s eyes. For this reason Sims’ guilt is ambiguous. This is the experience that leads him to adopt his very own virtual character – “Papa” – an alter ego who can carry out his darkest fantasies while sparing children in the real world. His fantasy world is populated by the innocent and naïve Iris, one of Papa’s ‘children’, enchantingly portrayed by Rosie Bonner, and also Woodnut (James Riley), whose suspicious motives only become clear later in the play. The fantasy world is rounded off by Mr Doyle who is helplessly drawn in by ‘The Nether’. One can’t help but feel pity for this character due to Elliot McClenaghan’s cleverly disconnected portrayal.
With a remarkably professional and intense performances from the whole cast, The Nether really makes you think about the sort of life a “life without consequence” would be like. It’s not difficult to link the themes of the play with the sex scandals we are confronted with in the news every day or even the recent ‘child sex-doll debate’ which hit the papers this year. It’s this social and political import, and the mature, imaginative way the content is handled, that really makes this play resonant once the lights go up.
Reviewed by Megan Thompson