Haunting, disturbing, thought-provoking, maybe even shocking, The Nether – Jennifer Haley’s latest play – has just opened at the San Francisco Playhouse. It’s a powerful and compelling piece of theater, superbly directed by Bill English, and brilliantly performed.
It deals with a facet of the internet of which many users are probably not even aware. This is the murky side of a facility which is open to anyone with an online connection – a virtual world in which the imagination can run riot, where people can indulge their fantasies in complete anonymity, where their identity is protected, and where there is apparently no culpability, and there are no consequences. Or are there?
An absorbing drama, The Nether gives rise to other questions: Where does reality end and imagination begin? Is involvement in this virtual world harmful or simply a form of escapism? Is it actually legal?
These are the issues which plague the mind as we watch a young detective, Morris, (played by Ruibo Quan) question two men about their online involvement in a virtual world, called the Hideaway, which one of the individuals – Sims, (Warren David Keith) – has created, and to which the other, Doyle, (Louis Parnell) is one of two ‘visitors’. The other ‘visitor’ is a Mr Woodnut, played by Josh Schell.
The Hideaway is a beautiful home, set in a lovely garden, in which lives a winsome little girl, Iris, beautifully portrayed on the night by an utterly charming young actress, Carmen Steele. (She alternates performances with Matilda Holtz, by all accounts every bit as talented and delightful.)
Interspersed with forays into this Victorian world, we watch as Morris pursues her line of questioning to Sims and Doyle, trying to break them down, trying to shame Sims into parting with information about the location of his host server.
To say any more would be to say too much. If your interest has been piqued, you’ll just have to go and see a performance! According to The Hollywood Reporter, The Nether is “Unrelentingly suspenseful, yet revealing great moral complexity”, and The New York Times wrote: “As a parable for where we’re headed on that big old highway in the digital sky, The Nether exerts a viselike grip, while taking you down avenues of thought you probably haven’t traveled yet.”
The Nether – which won the 2012 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize – premiered in Los Angeles in 2013, opened at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2014, and immediately transferred to the West End. The play’s New York run, at the MCC Theater, was extended three times.
Jennifer Haley’s specialty is the exploration of the ethics of virtual reality, and how technology impacts on us and on our relationships. She has also written Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom – “a horror story about suburban video game addition”, and Froggy, described as “a noir thriller with interactive media design and a live soundtrack”. (both quotes from San Francisco Playhouse notes).
The Nether runs at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, 2nd floor of the Kensington Park Hotel, until March 5th. For further information and/or tickets, visit www.sfplayhouse.org or call the box office on 415-677-9596.