THE NETHER, Catnip Productions at the Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, 13 September-7 October 2017. Photography by Ross Waldron, above - Danielle Catanzariti and Alec Snow; below - Danielle Catanzariti; below again - Alec Snow
In her 2014 play, American playwright Jennifer Haley set an investigator, Morris (Katie Fitchett), on the trail of Sims, aka Papa (Kim Knuckey), a man whose two names are neon-lit nudges to the world of virtual reality he has created on a future version of the 'net – The Nether – where the Hideaway is an adults-only Sim City in which he is a dystopian Big Daddy.
Not just for any old adults, however, but specifically pedophiles – actual or wannabes. Disconcertingly, this place is a steampunk timewarp with a fairytale crenellated mansion in the woods surrounded by small video screens (designer Pip Runciman and lighting designer Christopher Page). The techno-historical dislocation is emphasised by Melanie Liertz’s costumes, especially the Edwardian garb of Sims and new client, Mr Woodnut (Alec Snow). Then Papa’s current “little girl” appears.
Young Iris (Danielle Catanzariti) could be Jon-Benet Ramsay: she is all ringlets and frills, articulate beyond her years and coached in her winning ways to almost automaton level. She is both childishly innocent and preternaturally knowing. And, of course, she isn’t real, she’s an avatar – you can do what you like with or to her and she won’t be hurt, report you to the police and best of all, if you want to take it that far – she reincarnates, unharmed, no matter what...
This might have been a bit of a shock to audiences in 2014, but things move fast in the 21st century. In another online world – Minecraft – there is also a Nether, where compasses and clocks don’t work and there are also monsters, the worst of which is possibly the Ghast, but none are of the sexual kind. And just last month, news media around the world breathlessly reported on the interactive, AI-equipped lifelike sex dolls now available at around $5000. Can it be long before an under-age nymphet version is on the market?
Meanwhile, back at real non-reality the investigation is proceeding. Morris mostly wears a knowing half smile along with regulation issue no-nonsense suit and haircut. Does she know the answers before she asks the questions, or is this supposed to indicate enigma and mystery? It’s certainly mysterious as Morris’s interrogations alternate between the defiant, arrogant Papa and another older man, Doyle (Alan Faulkner) a husk of humanity who was once a high school science teacher and is now addicted to “life” in the Hideaway – with consequences.
Jennifer Haley is a writer who, according to the New York Times, specialises in the ethics of technology – an area which is possibly more fluid and uncertain than any other. And her questions are voiced by the characters: Sims/Papa is the rationalist-capitalist, Doyle is the philosopher-humanist. Except, of course, they’re not really: Doyle’s next step is a particularly creepy one, while Papa’s self-justifying tale of how he didn’t molest a neighbour’s child and invented The Hideaway instead is the closest we come to insight into the pedophile mind. And it’s not enough.
Papa’s wistful reminiscence about his younger self is couched almost romantically, like the melancholic yearning expressed for long-vanished trees and blue sky. “I miss trees,” is a plaintive motif that recurs along with how permitting people to fulfil desires virtually is better than doing so in the real world.
In the play’s terms, this sentimentality is the pulling mechanism – on the audience – that is matched by the push mechanism of having the setting and characters of the Hideaway safely in another era. It’s a ploy that’s been successfully used for centuries. Think Shakespeare, who repeatedly saved his bacon by ostensibly critiquing other nations (Denmark, Illyria) and other times (Rome, Egypt).
Director Justin Martin mostly avoids the lurking traps of emotional blackmail through a crisp and clear production on the one hand, and the visual subversion of historical prettiness on the other. Sound design by Tom Hogan and James Brown also plays its part with discordant elements maintaining an edge throughout the 80 minutes.
Coming late to the show (by chance the last performance) meant knowing The Nether has shocked and horrified some and disturbed others. I can report no such response, but what did occur is that in a play whose subject matter is so unacceptable, it’s clever to depict nothing more than a gently stroked cheek. It means the shock, horror and disturbance are in the eyes and imaginations of the beholder. What monsters lurk there?
The Nether is a handsome production and well performed by a substantial cast. It raises questions but there is too much fudging to make it at all profound. it’s an often intriguing mix of police procedural (very analogue), totalitarian video game (very digital) and moral and ethical debate (very unsatisfying).
Yet we live in a country where moral values have been corrupted beyond recognition by religions and politics; where violence and abuse of children are condoned and where a basic human right is up for a joke vote. That a playwright is not able to answer questions around such dilemmas isn’t surprising, that she tried to raise them is worth celebrating. And so is this production of The Nether.