Sunday 27 July 2014

The Nether – by Jennifer Haley [text review]


In 1997 Patrick Marber wrote ten minutes of stage-time which anticipated one of the biggest problems which was to face theatre in the years that followed. It is scene three of Closer. In it, two men meet in an internet chat room. One of them is pretending to be a woman. However, because neither man can see the other, the man who is “being himself” allows himself to believe that he has indeed met a woman looking for casual sex online and arranges to meet her in real life (IRL, as subsequent internet jargon has it). The scene is written and played for comic effect, although it’s essentially a technological update of the bed-trick or transvestive disguise on which Shakespeare and his predecessors capitalised for centuries.

Fast forward nearly twenty years and Jennifer Haley’s 2012 play The Nether (now receiving its European première at the Royal Court) deals with almost precisely the same online misunderstanding. And this time it’s serious.

This week, I’ve been out of town, writing the introduction to Peter Boenisch’s forthcoming book Regie: Directing Scenes and Senses in European Theatre, and so I’ve been unable to see Jeremy Herrin and Es Devlin’s production. I have, however, been very interested to read the script, the reviews, and experience some of what the play is.

It seems apt then, given that The Nether is a play about the disparity between the proposition and the actual, that I instead review this “virtual” experience of the play. After all, on the surface of it, the play appears to propose some level of moral equivalence between a simulation (text and photographs) and “reality”.

Oh, and it’s going to be WELL SPOILERY, so don’t read if you’re going to go and mind about “twists” and “surprises” (Hint: as always, I think that the “ooh!” factor is totally over-rated, and actually knowing what’s going to happen is a much better way of watching any sort of content if you want to come out of with an intelligent opinion about it.)


The plot of The Nether is important, because it’s where a lot of the play’s ethical questions take shape; indeed, the script initially reads much more like a film than a piece of theatre. A film where everyone talks a surprising amount, but a film nonetheless. Reading it, rather than watching it, you are plunged into a windowless, featureless grey cell. Across a blank, slightly futuristic table a female detective (Morris) confronts a man. Sims: a name that, presumably on purpose, recalls one of the earliest online “second life” games). Sims is the inventor and proprietor of “The Hideaway”, a “realm” in “the Nether”. Haley’s proposition is “the Nether was called the Internet” in the past (p.27). A “realm” (a brilliant choice of the most irritating word imaginable for “website”, suggesting that internet technology in the future is still mostly in the hands of Tolkien addicts) is where people go, virtually, to do stuff on/in “the Nether”. Most universities and workplaces are now on/in “the Nether”, we learn. How people do stuff is never really discussed, but there’s an implication of full bodily and sensory immersion. Perhaps with special suits and hats or something.

The Hideaway is apparently the best designed “realm” in “the Nether”. It is a labour of love. Unfortunately, that love is a product of Sims’s sexual desire for children. On the surface, therefore, it feels as if this should be “a play about paedophilia”. Haley definitely underlines this point early on. At the end of the third scene (p.11) Sims gives up dialogue and lapses into underlining:
“Look, Detective, I am sick. I am sick and have always been sick and there is no cure. No amount of cognitive behavioral therapy or relapse determent or even chemical castration will sway me from my urges toward children. I am sick and no matter how much I loved him or her I would make my own child sick and I see this I see this - not all of us see this - but I have been cursed with both compulsion and insight. I have taken responsibility for my sickness. I am protecting my neighbor’s children and my brother’s children and the children I won’t allow myself to have, and the only way I can do this is because I’ve created a place where I can be my fucking self!”
The implications of “the fucking self” are left sadly under-explored.

But, yes, that’s the end of the third scene, a continuation of the first. In between there’s been another interrogation scene, this time between Morris and Doyle, a man who has been using “The Hideaway”. This scene is all pretty standard: threats of exposure (he is 65, married, a teacher, a churchgoer) are mingled with more exposition so that we, the audience, can get to grips with what this “Nether” thing is.

Then we go into the Nether for the first time (p.12-15). Papa (Sims) is talking to Iris: “a little girl” (Haley’s only character-description for Iris). It is an innocent, even grating conversation between some Shirley Temple-type and this avuncular Papa. Because we know that she’s a virtual child-prositute and he’s a self-confessed compulsive molester of children, I guess we read it slightly differently. Still, in the abstract, it’s all perfectly above board, and fine for a child to perform. Which is what happens in this production, as we can see from the production photographs. At the end of the scene a “guest”, Woodnut, enters.

Anyway, the story arc continues along these tracks, pinging between the alternate interrogations of Sims and Doyle by Morris, and Papa, Iris and Woodnut hanging out in various configurations in The Hideaway.

The twist – the two twists, in fact – should be pretty guessable by this point. In her interrogations of Doyle and Sims, Morris refers to a detective who had entered The Hideaway under cover as “a guest”: Woodnut, we rightly assume. Morris reads from “Woodnut”’s report, about the terrible things he thinks, feels, sees... And, in two moments of sudden revelation, we learn that Morris was Woodnut and Doyle was Iris. “But didn’t they...?” as Blackadder might have put it. Why, yes: yes they apparently did. Female detective Morris, does apparently fall in love and have sex with Doyle while she is Nether-disguised as a chap, and the 65-year-old man is disguised as “a little girl”.

To complicate matters yet further, “Iris”/Doyle is “in love with” “Papa”/Sims. And Sims/“Papa” is pretty into “Iris”. Most interesting of all is that Doyle has wound up playing “Iris” because he was formerly a “guest” who ran out of money, and came to this arrangement with Papa so that he could remain in The Hideaway.

Several reviews have suggested that the play explores questions about images of child sex abuse and the internet. And, with Sims’s above-quoted confession, this might be one fleeting aim of the playwright. But for my money, it seems to obscure the most interesting things that the play actually does.

For one, we have this character – Doyle – whose desires don’t actually seem to be focussed on children or child abuse at all. He enters The Hideaway as a guest and presumably does do those things, but ultimately it turns out he is addicted to the place itself, declares his love for the patently older, male Sims, and also forms an attachment to Woodnut. There’s even a sense that Doyle enjoys playing the part of a child who is repeatedly violated and then murdered with an axe (always an axe, apparently). Doyle can even choose how much of any of this he “feels” (again, no explanation as to how, but that’s probably for the best). If this is really meant to be a play about paedophilia, what would we be supposed to learn from Doyle? Mercifully, I don’t think that is what the play is trying to do.

We then have to negotiate the complexities of Morris, who, in the guise of Woodnut, “falls in love” with “Iris”. And then there’s Sims, who while claiming to “love” “Iris”, is, at root, most attached to designing and refining the details of his realm, and exerting control over those within it, dictating their appearance, and maintaining his rules.

This is a fantasia on and exploration of a much stranger set of desires than any review I’ve so far read seems to credit. It is already much less “about” discovering a capacity within ourselves for darkness than Tim Crouch’s The Author was five years ago. And, rather than being a play about images of child sexual abuse online, it struck me that it’s much more a play about theatre and love. Indeed, the character Doyle most reminds me of – especially once you know everything Iris says is also him – is Blanche Dubois from A Streetcar Named Desire: everything from the repeated attraction to the wrong men to her refusal to be seen in plain sunlight.

Of the nominal question, Herrin’s production effectively already answers that conundrum for its audiences by casting “a little girl” as “a little girl”. After all, the child playing Iris on stage is more “real” than “Iris” ever is, and certainly isn’t actually controlled an adult. The script invites the audience, almost causes them, to envisage this particular child being raped and then murdered by two of the men on the stage. By putting an actual child in our eyeline, the production tells you precisely what “little girl” to imagine. And that actually does happen. And isn’t legally culpable in away way. So the question of what it’s ok to look at that isn’t actually real seems like it’s been dubiously resolved, because the audience has already looked at it in their minds eye. Or, rather, this production perhaps raises more questions than it answers by offering this staging.

After all, in the script, the moral dilemma seems, incorrectly, to hang off this question of whether by doing something online, to a picture of a child which is being animated by a 65-year-old science teacher, means you’re actually a paedophile. In many ways, it feels like the question relates more closely to the periodic grumbling about games like Grand Theft Auto, where your avatar can apparently rape and murder prostitutes and gun down whole arcades of people. Does doing so in an environment where you know it’s not real make you a rapist and a psychopath, or merely someone who understands that’s what the game’s offer is? Because otherwise, I’m not sure what volunteering to watch the play means. The Author seemed to confront that question much more directly.

This is part of what I mean when I say that the play raises questions about theatre and about how theatre operates. It perhaps recalls the controversy about Three Kingdoms, or Chris Goode’s ongoing argument that theatre “makes real things”. Separately, the play also recalls Nicolas Ridout’s suggestion in Theatre & Ethics (usefully paraphrased here by Maddy Costa):
‘Theatre isn't at its most ethical, Ridout posits, when “what the work says or does matches our own sense of what we would like it to say or do, corresponds with our own sense of how we would like the world to be”. For theatre to be ethical, it “would have to confront its spectators or participants with something radically other, something that could not be assimilated by their existing understanding of the ethical”. Such work requires “a labour of critical thought for its ethical potential to be realised”, requires a critic to approach it “with uncertainty, with a view to the possibility of surprise, challenge or affront”.’
The last line of the play is: “The world is still the place we have to learn to be. You are free to go, Mr. Sims. You are free.” The play also talks about God a surprising amount. This, then, could be seen as a play about free will, and one which ultimately asserts some pretty conventional moralities: that you should look after your children not hook yourself up to the internet the whole time (‘become “a shade”’ in the parlance of the piece); and that you should recognise your bad desires and just not act on them. Simples. If this were a piece of theatre with a “moral line” then it would be a dismal catastrophe. Happily, because of how plays work, that last line of the play (before the epilogue, anyway) is just a statement of belief – perhaps not even a true one – by one character, and not “the moral line”. That said, the last scene proper is a bit of a car-crash attempt to shackle what is frequently a fascinating, imaginative work to the kind of black and white morality to which the American mainstream still seems troublingly addicted.

Apparently, in the printed script version of the play that accompanies this production Haley makes the helpful suggestion: “A young actress also adds warmth, which is critical to the chemistry of the play”. To which I would reply, “*a version of* the play.” (And also: “funny ideas about warmth you have, Jen.”) Reading the script, you get a sense of infinite possibilities for staging it. Not just in terms of the look of the thing – it’s easy to imagine story-telling by just the three real people, all in virtual-reality suits, suspended in some sort of Matrix thing, like a kind of Drowned World in stasis. But the actual texture of it. Imagining the Idomeneus approach, with the contested storytelling spilling out of a multi-voiced chorus. Or the Adler and Gibb version, where the use of a child on stage is dealt with intelligently and brilliantly as a question about ethics and about the stage, rather than as the location for edgy discomfort. One thinks of Tom Scutt’s fierce, bright vision of a post-electric apocalypse, echoed in Haley’s nearly treeless reality. The accretion of mess and the encoaching sludge of personal ruin in Ian McNeil and Carrie Cracknell’s Birdland, or just the fuck it, the rest of us might all as well go home and stage every play like this, brilliance of Ivo van Hove and Jan Versweyveld’s A View From The Bridge. And that’s without even getting onto things like the distillation of fear, tension and fantasy in Gisele Vienne’s This Is How You Will Disappear.

One wonders how it might be if Iris were played by Annie Firbank, or even, as per “the reality” by Doyle all along. Or a chorus effect of the two of them. One wonders what having actors play characters of different genders to their own might have. One wonders what a vicious, brash drag-show version starring the David Hoyle and Christeene (NSFW) might be like.

Obviously I haven’t seen the production, so it might have been any of these. The hope is, of course, that what people who did see the production did see was something that they couldn’t have imagined if they’d just sat at home and read the script.

p.s. I had to go online to find the above photos and Charles Spencer uses the word “beautiful” three times in his review; twice to describe a ten-year-old girl.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That last scene was very problematic for me. Sims is describing how this world keeps him from performing these acts in the real world, but we've already heard he's got this stringent screening process and rules of behaviour. So presumably, paedophiles uninterested in Victorian Americana and detailed descriptions of how records are made are populating a seedier part of The Nether or the real world?

I sort of got the feeling that Sims/Papa would be much more interesting if he were not a paedophile himself, but came at things purely from a business sense, like how drug dealers are rarely also drug users. Focussing on his own predilections and morality just seemed to muddy the issues for me, stopped any real conversation about freedoms getting too deep.