“Did you ever fuck an elf?” asks Sims, successfully snapping the audience back into gallows humour mode and drawing titters of delight from across the darkened room…
At first glance, you wouldn’t think that a play centred around a digitally enhanced paedophile paradise would draw too many laughs… but wryness had a big part to play in Jennifer Haley’s dark drama; and The Nether delivers 80 minutes of the tightest theatre we’ve seen in quite a while, along with one of the most impressive set designs ever to appear in the West End.
Played to a packed house and set 50 years in the future, the narrative flits between a drab interrogation room and a virtual haven of depravity called the Hideaway, a pseudo-Victorian realm where guests can indulge in a range of fantasies with a prepubescent avatar named Iris.
Recently transferring from a successful run at the Royal Court, it is presented on a split-level stage, with the interrogation room at the bottom, and ‘The Nether’ – a future version of the internet – springing up above it. The action switches seamlessly between the two, cleverly incorporating giant video screens that draw you into the virtual Hideaway with flashing code and wireframes, before giving way to bright colours, ghostly voices, woodland scenes and enticing Victorian rooms.
You get the sense of gazing through an electronic looking glass, where clever reflections, muted sounds and dazzling lights open out this pervy little world that you don’t want to enter.
To say this is perhaps the most visually striking play of all time is certainly not getting carried away with hyperbole. It genuinely looks and feels as though you are a voyeur to a futuristic, virtual paradise. And nor does it trade solely on its power to shock… which is impressive considering it is partially set in a horrible fantasy realm where fucking and killing children is as normal as playing a game of Grand Theft Auto.
Yet the story is just a vehicle to explore the wider themes of censorship, and whether or not a person’s darkest desires will be suppressed, or brought to the fore, when one has the ability to explore them. Did those desires already exist, or were they created by exposure to material that somehow has the powerful ability to warp and manipulate your identity?
We won’t bore you with spoilers, but leaving the theatre and heading for more gin, we did our best to pick as many holes in the plot that we could. It was very hard to do. Any changes would have involved adding not cutting, which is certainly a rarity.
And sitting on the District Line, having a rather animated conversation about paedophilia, child porn, censorship – and the merits of falling in love with very annoying nine-year-old girls – we realised just how much this play had made us think… and how strange we must have looked to all the other passengers.