This week I took a trip down to the Duke of York's Theatre to watch a preview performance of The Nether, a play by Jennifer Haley, which originally ran for a limited engagement at the Royal Court from 17th July to 9th August last year. The play's West End transfer is set to officially open on 23rd February, so this is NOT a review of the production, however, I would like to commend the Royal Court, Headlong and Sonia Friedman for making such a brave and bold choice to produce such a thought-provoking play.
In this day and age, producers who take big risks are praised probably as much as they are told they need to be sectioned. I found myself slightly surprised that something with the controversial content of The Nether was being staged at a West End theatre, and I mean I was surprised in a positive sense.
For those not familiar with the play's themes, it revolves around a virtual realm in the year 2050 in what is called 'The Nether' (the evolution of what we call the internet). The realm is called 'The Hideaway' and is described as a place that "offers complete freedom - a new virtual wonderland providing total sensory immersion. Just log in, choose an identity and indulge your every desire." It is quickly revealed that The Hideaway, created and operated by a character known as Papa (Mr Sims in the real world), is a place where paedophiles can live out their fantasies in a 'safe' virtual environment. The narrative follows an investigation into Papa's online world and evokes a plethora of questions along the way:
Does a virtual realm such as The Hideaway, where paedophiles can act on their sexual urges with virtual children, decrease the risk of real children in the real world being abused? Does such freedom only escalate the desire for more 'real' experiences? And more generally, are we as human beings becoming socially less and less interested in the real world with face-to-face contact and connections with other people? What will our social lives look like in the future as technology continues to advance? Should manically depressed people have an option to live completely in a virtual fantasy world, if that offers some sort of happiness? Would that still be living?
If any of these questions arouse your curiosity, I can heartily recommend that you get yourselves down to the Duke of York's Theatre. The Nether will conclude its limited run there on 25th April 2015.
As I left the theatre, I began to think again how amazing the medium of theatre is and that no topic has to be off bounds. Not only can it delve back into the history of our world, but can also immerse itself with the most sensitive issues of today's society, along with projections of problems we may encounter in the future. All topical issues can be explored on stage with either a subjective or objective voice, and we as audience members can be educated, inspired or even emotionally moved into action. Paedophelia is such a difficult and uncomfortable subject to be faced with, and I was grateful to be confronted with it in the context of a West End theatre. Discussing it with my guest at a nearby coffee shop afterwards, it was so refreshing to talk so openly about what we had just witnessed. Sometimes I leave the theatre and there is nothing really to discuss, besides how cheerful we now are.
I would love to see pieces of new writing exposed on a similar level about subjects I feel uneasy about - the beheading of civilians by extremists, or powerful religious cults, for example - and I am grateful for the theatres and producers that do not shy away from this.