Science Fiction isn't the most
common genre you find on stage; ironic, really, since it was Karel Čapek’s 1920
By choosing to perform The Nether, Edinburgh-based Theatre Paradok capably remind us that science fiction doesn’t require the OTT visuals, and is perfectly capable of working with some really big and disturbing ideas.
By choosing to perform The Nether, Edinburgh-based Theatre Paradok capably remind us that science fiction doesn’t require the OTT visuals, and is perfectly capable of working with some really big and disturbing ideas. Set in an undetermined future, where trees appear to have largely died out—a detail that, while poetic, doesn’t quite feel ecologically believable—playwright Jennifer Haley’s focus is on a now-ubiquitous virtual reality, the Nether. Specifically, it’s on “the Hideaway”, a virtual pseudo-Victorian bordello in which, for example, a 65 year old university lecturer can anonymously “become” one of the young girls on offer.
Our main narrative thread is a combative interview between Detective Morris (Eilidh Northridge) and the Hideaway’s creator Mr Sims (Bradley Butler). His performance is a good balance of smarmy confidence and feigned outrage, but Northridge arguably does better with the harder job; her character’s all-too-unhealthy emotional involvement in the case could be viewed wrongly as making her one-dimensional. Background is provided by flashbacks to both events inside the Hideaway and another interview with Doyle (a focused Angus Gavan McHarg), the above-mentioned university lecturer for whom the relationships inside the Hideaway matter more than even his family.
Director Vlada Nebo stages The Nether down the middle of the venue, with audience seated on either side of Rui Zhang’s set; a plain desk and two chairs at either end for the interrogations, and a carpeted, more welcoming “virtual” space in between. For the most part this works, although the digital patterns on the floor are only clear to those sitting in the front rows. Admittedly scene changes, at least on the first night, take too long; it might have been better for cast members simply to remain motionless in the dark instead of noisily walking on and off.
Haley’s script isn’t without genuine laughs, but these barely compensate for the disturbingly all-too-pertinent extrapolation of us fully interacting “without consequences”. Thanks to Brett McCarthy Harrop’s brilliant Iris, and Will Byam Shaw’s more hesitant “guest” Woodnut, we glimpse how “It’s OK to forget who you are and discover who you might be.” Unfortunately, all human behaviour still appears to be dominated by imbalances in social power, with consequences that can be genuinely fatal.