I still have to write things about the Munich Residenztheater Faust, and about the RSC White Devil, and perhaps about the RSC Two Gents, but the backlog is getting out of hand, so I’ll just write quickly, off the cuff, and without too much deliberation about the show I just saw at the Royal Court, Jennifer Haley’s The Nether, which has been getting an interesting mix of raves in print and lukewarm reviews online.

Very briefly, the play is a chamber piece on multiple levels: primarily, it’s set in an interrogation room (a bare, extremely shallow downstage sliver of space, with a table and two chairs, the very tall grey wall separating it from the stage proper serving as a projection screen for a plethora of black-and-white windows of different camera angles on the subject being questioned, polygraph lines, voice spectrum displays, and the predictable like). That backdrop flies away when we enter the “Nether,” a virtual world, or rather, the particular “realm” called “The Hideaway” with which the play is mainly concerned. This world of code is simultaneously gorgeous, a Victorian fantasy world set in a poplar forest (in a real world, in the play, in which trees have become a rarity), and hideous, a Victorian fantasy world in which men can meet, have sex with, and axe murder prepubescent girls.

If you want to read more about the play itself, I’ll refer you to Andrew Haydon’s excellent review-of-the-text. In fact, I’d say go and read that before you read on, as that’ll allow me to plunge straight into analysis.

Back? Grand.

First off, I agree with Andrew that this isn’t really a play about pedophilia at all, despite what many reviews seem to suggest. It seems to me that Haley latches on to the issue of pedophilia as a particularly potent example through which to dramatize or debate the question of virtuality, and to probe the dividing line between the real and the technologically mediated in a (soon-to-come) world in which people can spend most of their lives, even (if they become “shades”) all of their lives in a virtual realm. There is a weird ethical line that comes up sporadically but feels like a decoy, not the actual substance of the play — an argument along the lines of “if I have sex with virtual children, I won’t have sex with real ones; take the virtual away from me, and you’ll turn me into a real monster.” I’m not sure we’re supposed to buy that line (it’s just the perpetrator’s point of view, after all), but in any case it strikes me as perspective the play is only superficially interested in. More intriguingly, the virtual turns out not be the place where a grown man can have sex — and a relationship — with a nine-year-old girl, it’s the place where one grown man can have sex and a relationship with a 65-year-old Physics teacher via the virtual persona of a nine-year-old girl. On that level, the play is simply about sexuality, or erotic attachment, or perhaps love, in a virtual world, and about the question of how the embodied, non-virtual self and its avatar are related: if “Papa” (Sims’ avatar) grows close to, has sex with, and axe murders (repeatedly) the 65-year-old Doyle’s avatar — the nine-year-old Iris — is he doing any (all?) of those things to Doyle? Does it matter? If Doyle becomes a shade, as he wants to, and permanently turns into Iris, will the division between person and persona disappear? And if so, is that desirable? Central to that cluster of questions is not Sims’ pedophilia, but the distance between Doyle and Iris. Haley’s has constructed an extreme version of the good old model of triangulated desire, a desire that can’t find immediate and direct expression and thus needs to be channeled through an intermediary third.

So far, so interesting. Perhaps. And the play is smart enough to avoid making things too easy: it’s not simply that Doyle is a closeted older man ready to jump at any outlet for his unfulfilled homoerotic desire. It’s not even clear that the desire is as straightforwardly erotic as that — he might just be cruising for an actual daddy. What is evident, however, is that Doyle’s deepest desire is for a real connection that he only seems able to find in the virtual world. And in this, he is exactly the same as the other two non-virtual characters in the play. Sims also finds fulfillment (as well as financial profit) only in the Nether; the real, for him, is a brownstone and a poplar sapling, symbols of wealth, perhaps even luxury, but either way substitutes for an emotional life he cannot have in the real world. And Morris, the police officer, daughter of a shade, also finds a deep fulfilment in the Hideaway — she “loved it there.” At the same time, the only way to establish the real emotional link Doyle is looking for in the Nether is the introduction of an element of the real: the moment Sims grant shim the gift of a slight reduction of the anonymity he elsewhere absolutely insists on and tells him that he has a poplar in his real garden. In itself, disconnected from the world, the virtual is not enough in this play; it can only function as a space for wish fulfilment if it is somehow connected to the world of bodies and things.

There’s other stuff in the play, including a disturbing number of God references that struck me as really quite odd, but I think there is pretty clear central preoccupation: the relationship between the virtual and the real, between identity and avatar, between virtual sex and real emotions.

But what happens when this gets put on stage? When we enter the Nether, a space really quite beautifully realized, with a poplar forest that seems to recall Peter Stein’s Cherry Orchard, what we see is, well, not a virtual realm at all, but a set with real people on it. Sure enough, the characters those people play are virtual presences. But they’re no more virtual than the supposedly “real” bodies of Morris, Sims, and Doyle in the interrogation room. The virtuality that governs both the real and the virtual on the Royal Court stage is the same. For the production’s dramaturgical logic, that’s a pretty serious problem. It’s not that one can’t understand that the figures in the Nether aren’t supposed to be as real as the figures in the interrogation room. Of course that’s comprehensible. But in its representational logic, the production can’t actually display the different kinds of virtuality that are so central to the play. Instead, we get a version of “the real” in which actors portray characters; and then we get a version of “the virtual” in which actors portray characters while asking us to supply the knowledge that their bodies are just zeroes and ones. In other words, if the Nether achieves a status of greater virtuality than the interrogation room in this production, that has nothing to do with the acting, and almost everything with what we as an audience persuade ourselves to see. On stage, then, there is no difference between real and virtual: the virtual is the same as the real, except it takes place in a different, and differently configured, space. And that pretty decisively undercuts all the probing and prodding that the play performs. If there is no difference, really, then why all the fuss?

I have more to say, but I have to run to my next show and will leave it at this. Except for one additional thought. I hardly ever see contemporary drama in the UK; there’s too much stuff I need to see for professional reasons and too little time. But I had always assumed that how British actors speak modern texts must be much closer to real-life diction than the extremely artificial line delivery that’s sadly standard for most older plays, in particular verse plays. If this production is anything to go by, not so. It felt a little strange to watch actors with whose TV and film work I’m very familiar voice contemporary characters speaking in what is a fairly artless modern register as if the words they pronounced deserved special attention. The fact that Jeremy Herrin chose to ignore the author’s liberating injunction that “producers should feel free to make the location specific to their country” and had the actors adopt non-specific “American” accents might have had something to do with this, but I doubt it. There seemed to be a profound sense of indebtedness to the text, a reliance on lines that made the adoption of a more free and in-the-moment tone impossible. I can’t say if this is in any way common, but it struck me as a pretty remarkable instance of text-dominated theatre.

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One Response to The Nether (Jennifer Haley/Jeremy Herrin, Royal Court, London, August 2014)

  1. […] not check out: The Nether – by Jennifer Haley [text review] on Postcards from the gods The Nether (Jennifer Haley/Jeremy Herrin, Royal Court, London, August 2014) on disposition The Nether, Royal Court Theatre – Not utopia after all on London Theatre […]

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