Don’t be afraid of this play. Redcurrant Collective’s mounting of The Nether, which was a hit at the Fringe, is bound to be one of the best shows of the 2016/2017 season.
Jennifer Haley’s script is thematically intriguing and impeccably constructed. A police procedural set it in the near future, it tips back and forth between the ordinary world and the Nether, an iteration of the internet that contains virtual worlds where customers can spend time while assuming characters.
Off the top, a detective named Morris, who seems to be a vigilante, is interrogating Sims, who has set up a virtual world called the Hideaway. It’s an idealized Victorian realm that still has trees and blue skies, which are no longer generally available on planet Earth. It’s also a place where pedophiles can have sex with children, and murder them if they choose. (Don’t recoil; The Nether is neither sensationalistic nor inhumane.)
Sims, who is a pedophile himself, argues that he’s doing nothing wrong. The children aren’t real; they are avatars operated by adult employees. Everything, says Sims, is “in accordance with the statute of consensual role play.” Visitors to the Hideaway can indulge their acknowledged perversions without consequences—without inflicting real pain. Given their immutable desires, their patronage is a positive moral choice.
Morris counters that the sensual authenticity of experiences in the Hideaway blurs the lines between fantasy and reality, and that real-life harm could result. When she grills Doyle, a soon-to-retire middle-school teacher who frequents the Hideaway, he admits that he wants to cross over, to become a shade, a full-time resident of the Nether. Morris insists that Doyle’s family would suffer, but Doyle mounts a philosophically ambitious case for his virtual life, saying that, freed of their flesh-and-blood bodies, inhabitants of the Hideaway can relate to one another on the level of pure spirit.
The presence of avatars makes the story’s content a perfect match for the theatre, which reminds us that identity is a form of performance and that reality itself is a construction.
Working with simple production elements, director Chris Lam and his team deliver a streamlined, intelligent interpretation of the script. In Jonathan Kim’s lighting design, the real world is full of murky shadows, while the morally dubious Hideaway is warmly lit and clear. Working together, Kim and Lam use minimal blackouts, which makes the boundary between the worlds porous and creates silky transitions. The unsettling textures in James Coomber’s sound design shape the air into metallic fragments, reminding us that breathing in both realms is an uncertain enterprise.
Julia Siedlanowska, who plays Iris, the only child we meet in the Nether, is stellar. The frankness and simplicity of her delivery, the combination of intelligence and vulnerability, yield an unsettling and essential innocence. David Bloom is also particularly strong as Sims, who created the Hideaway, and Papa, his form in that region. Bloom brings fatigued intelligence to Sims and he makes you feel both the yearning and the wary calculation in Papa’s playfulness with Iris.
Linden Banks skillfully treks across Doyle’s rocky emotional terrain. Lissa Neptuno makes Morris, the detective fragile as well as authoritative. And Douglas Ennenberg’s youth and restraint make Woodnut, another customer in the Hideaway, an intriguing puzzle. Lam has cast well.
Don’t be daunted by The Nether’s subject matter. See it. But brace yourself: Haley springs a couple of plot twists that will stun you.
THE NETHER by Jennifer Haley. Directed by Chris Lam. A Redcurrant Collective production. At the Firehall Arts Centre on Friday, January 20. Continues until January 28.
Get tickets at the box office: 604-689-0926 or at https://tickets.firehallartscentre.ca/TheatreManager/1/online?event=730