Theatre review: The Nether at the Duke of York’s Theatre

Simon Thomson
The Nether offers a disturbing vision of our future online lives

Duke of York’s Theatre | ★★★★★

In the near future, the internet has evolved into the Nether, a construct of increasingly convincing fantasy realms, where ever more people choose to escape the costs or privations of the real world. A man known as Sims (Stanley Townsend), has created a private realm called the Hideaway. It is a confection of Victoriana – a bright country house surrounded by idyllic woodlands – where paying customers can enjoy experiences with the greatest verisimilitude; all presided over by Sims, in the fatherly guise of “Poppa”.
But the activities taking place in the Hideaway sit at right-angles to its genteel appearance, with the guests indulging in child rape and brutal murder. A bizarre and sickening collision of Little Women and Neuromancer, dripping with Southern Gothic, The Nether is rich, traumatic, and thought-provoking theatre.
The frontier always runs ahead of the law, but users of the Nether are gradually working out limits and establishing rules for what should or should not be permitted there. The action of the play is framed by a pair of interrogations, in which Morris (Amanda Hale) – a detective appalled by what takes place in the Hideaway – attempts to piece together Sims’ true identity in order to track him down in the real world. She interviews both Sims and his customer Doyle (David Calder), and the narrative shifts back and forth between the investigation and previous events which took place in the Hideaway.
Sims – “cursed with compulsion and insight” – created the Hideaway to live out his hitherto repressed paedophilic desires in a world “without consequences”. The play addresses many issues of current concern, but focuses on online identity, the vanishing distinction between the real and online worlds, the enforcement of public morals, and the possible harms of fantasy. The worst of the violence takes place off stage, leaving the audience to fill in the more lurid details.
The acting is great; especially from Townsend whose unapologetic Sims and beneficently menacing Poppa meld to present a man who is multidimensional and understandable, if not actually sympathetic. Adler (one of four girls playing the role of Iris) creates a character of similar complexity, mixing childish innocence with distressing maturity. Director Jeremy Herrin (Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies) has matched these performances with Jennifer Haley’s intelligent script, and the wonderfully imaginative sets and video design of Es Devlin and Luke Halls, to deliver a fantasy which is thoughtful, dark, and powerfully real.

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