Thank goodness for second chances. Or perhaps more appropriately in the case of The Nether, a second life.
Last seen as part of the 2016 Vancouver Fringe Festival, this is the second show in as many weeks artistic director Donna Spencer has brought back for another run at the Firehall Arts Centre. In this case deservedly so, as Jennifer Haley’s sci-fi mystery mindfuck works on so many levels.
Set in an unidentified not too distant future, The Nether is the next iteration of the internet. In Haley’s world, virtual reality has evolved beyond the confines of a visual and auditory experience. Online virtual worlds like Second Life and World of Warcraft have become so technologically advanced that users can now experience them with all of their senses. With the world crumbling outside their doors, escaping into these virtual existences has become the norm for most. As a result, the variety of these virtual realms have evolved to accommodate all manner of proclivities.
Among these new virtual words is The Hideaway. Said to be one of the most sophisticated, its quaint Victorian façade hides a darkly disturbing existence. Programmed and run by a self-confessed pedophile (the appropriately named Mr Sims), this realm exists for those looking to have sex – and more – with the virtual children who live there.
Part of the pleasure in watching The Nether unfold is in the many twists the playwright has built into her story. While the revelation of its central theme may be considered a spoiler, given the subject matter it is difficult not to use it as a warning.
Interestingly though, Haley provides no guidance to how the relationships between the adults and children are to be handled. Under Chris Lam’s direction there is little sensationalism in presenting its provocative content.
Helped immensely by the playwright’s refusal to take sides, The Nether becomes a thought-provoking debate into whether a crime in the real world extends into our virtual ones. It also feeds into the central character’s justification that The Hideaway exists as an outlet for people like himself, helping to ensure they do not act on their impulses in the real world.
Without further spoiling more of the mysteries that make Haley’s play so engaging, suffice to say the discussion goes much deeper. Not surprising perhaps from a playwright whose work “delves into ethics in virtual reality and the impact of technology on our human relationships, identity, and desire”.
Holding our hands through this difficult subject matter is the terrific ensemble of Linden Banks, David Bloom, Douglas Ennenberg, Lissa Neptuno, and Julia Siedlanowska. Maybe it is a defense mechanism given the topic, but under Lam’s direction the performances are somehow simultaneously realistic and detached; the result is an almost indescribable reaction to these characters.
This duality is interrupted though as Lam moves his characters through the audience at one of the more gruesome scenes. As a metaphor perhaps for the connection to our own real-life dark recesses, it is a bit on the nose.
While the transitions between the real and virtual worlds in this production largely work thanks to Jonathan Kim’s lighting, for a play about technology it is decidedly low-tech. There is a constant feeling that something is missing.
While one can understand budget limitations, if you spend just a few minutes Googling images from previous productions of The Nether it isn’t difficult to see the possibilities. Perhaps alongside James Coomber’s eerily effective soundscape the addition of projections would bring additional depth to lines between reality and fantasy.
With a similarly dark examination of the unanticipated consequences of technology on society, it is difficult not to compare Haley’s play to Black Mirror. But while fans of the television anthology series will love The Nether, familiarity is definitely not a prerequisite for taking in this thought-provoking and chilling mindfuck.
The Nether by Jennifer Haley. Directed by Chris Lam. A Firehall Arts Centre presentation of a Redcurrant Collective production. On stage at the Firehall Arts Centre (280 East Cordova St, Vancouver) until January 28. Visit https://firehallartscentre.ca for tickets and information.