An Oxford Playhouse show is pretty much as serious as it gets in university drama. The size of the budgets, the complexity of the staging, the sheer volume of tickets to be shifted, competes admirably with the scale of a fair proportion of real life professional theatre. I was thus expecting, when I went into the rehearsal room on Monday, to find a stressed and amped up cast and crew, fairly disinterested in the inane questions of a low quality student journalist. What I found instead was one of the most passionate, enthusiastic, welcoming, and quite frankly talented groups of actors that I have ever had the pleasure of watching in rehearsal. It is worth noting that the play covers some concerning themes of a sexual nature, which I will be explicitly discussing in this preview.
The Nether, a 2013 Jennifer Haley Sci-Fi thriller, opens at the Playhouse in 4th week, and its fundamental premise is initially a little bit overwhelming.
It is set in a near future where the development of virtual reality has proceeded at such a speed that it becomes difficult to distinguish between the being in the ‘Nether’ (basically the internet) and being ‘in world’ (real life). Our narrative centres on the character of Sims, and his online persona of Papa (both portrayed by Rory Grant).
Sims has made the most realistic and sophisticated Nether server ever made, called the Hideaway, a gloriously rendered, lush slice of Victoriana which tastes, feels, looks and smells just like the real world. The small caveat to this sublimity is that it is a server primarily dedicated to simulated sexual relations with minors; when I say ‘simulated’, what I mean is in the virtual reality, with someone who has the online persona of a child, but is in fact a consenting adult in the real world. It is from the moral quandaries that underwrite this concept that the drama and violence of the play stem. ‘In world’, Sims and the users of the server are being investigated for their online actions, and we see a string of interrogation scenes where detectives and characters fight back and forth over whether what they choose to simulate online is or isn’t illegal, and more pressingly, whether it is moral.
Speaking to director Livi Dunlop about this production really made me realise how pertinent some of these questions are. As they reflected, we are the first generation to not really remember a time before the internet—virtual reality has arrived, and is in its infancy, but the leap from dial up connections and chat rooms to Oculus rift and an increasingly all encompassing social media, seems so vast a growth in our lifetime, that ‘The Nether’ seems frighteningly imminent. Also, many of people of our generation are utilising online space in different ways—forming identities, livelihoods and lives online, the line between ‘in world’ and ‘online’ is more blurred now than it has ever been before.
As I’m sure you can imagine, the rehearsal process for the Nether has been exhaustive— distinguishing between different characters, their online personas and their flesh and bone identities requiring extensive role swapping, and child’s play—notably a rehearsal spent by Madeleine Walker (the 11 year old Nether character ‘Iris’) building a pillow fort. In one particularly painful scene, the detective Morris (Shannon Hayes) painstakingly drags an unrepentant Doyle (Jonny Wiles), through his actions in the Nether, watching an increasingly frantic Wiles crash like waves against the steely calm of Hayes is quite frankly a sight to behold.
It’s pretty rare that I actually get genuinely excited about set design on a student production, however the plans to represent this physically impossible online space as a “Abstracted, Morris patterned, disintegrating Victorian house”, drawing on MC Escher and playing around with perspective quite frankly sounds incredible. I strongly recommend you head down to the Playhouse in 4th week, as it sounds like its going to be quite a show.