Review: The Nether (Seymour Centre)

Venue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Sep 13 – Oct 7, 2017
Playwright: Jennifer Haley
Director: Justin Martin
Cast: Danielle Catanzariti, Alan Faulkner, Katie Fitchett, Kim Knuckey, Alec Snow
Image by Ross Waldron

Theatre review
The Nether takes place in a future where people are able to spend as much time as they want, in the virtual reality of an advanced form of the internet, where they can smell the trees and touch the flesh of another. Jennifer Haley’s entertaining and provocative play takes us into an imaginary new frontier of pornography, and has us consider the ethics surrounding online sexual behaviour, beyond rationalisations that pertain to simplified concepts of the consenting adult.

Sims is a paedophile who runs a secret playground that he has invented, designed to satisfy the urges of people who share his egregiously sexual and violent compulsions. The children in his world are however, not creations of artificial intelligence or robotics. Other adults are required to play these roles, destined to be savagely defiled by Sims’ paying customers. The police are investigating this underground community, and Detective Morris is determined to have the mastermind prosecuted.

Cleverly structured, with layers of surprising complexity that has us gripped from the very beginning, The Nether is an edgy and thrilling ride, that appeals to our perpetually conflicted feelings about the ways we regard technology and sex. Justin Martin’s direction is crisp and powerful, keeping us attentive for the entire duration, while we engage with the philosophical and contentious material being presented.

The production is beautifully designed in all its aspects. Pip Runciman’s set, Melanie Liertz’s costumes, and Christopher Page’s lights, are ambitiously conceived and splendidly cultivated, for an appropriately seductive peek into the precarious moralities being explored. Music and sound by the talented duo, James Brown and Tom Hogan, are on hand to enhance dramatic tension, and to facilitate an ominous atmosphere around the disturbing story.

Excellent performances by all five actors deliver a vivid rendition of the play, tightly paced and sharply focused, so that we find ourselves completely mesmerised by its extraordinary narrative. Pseudo child Iris is convincingly portrayed by Danielle Catanzariti, whose deftly exaggerated infantile femininity is a constant reminder of the artifice being represented, whilst maintaining an impressive emotional realism that allows us access to a genuine humanity that lies behind the illusion. Equally memorable is Kim Knuckey as Sims, the dubious character we find ourselves vacillating between hating and wishing to protect. Knuckey’s ability to let us see the good and bad that co-exist in his character, gives the show a level of sophistication that is quite remarkable.

It can be argued that The Nether contains some glaring plot holes in its sci-fi manifestation that require some finessing, but there is no question that this is theatre that will tantalise. We have not reached the future that it depicts, but we already share that same potent sense of guilt in our current reliance of technology. To posit real and virtual worlds as binary oppositions is increasingly suspect, and to argue that the organic is essentially better or more important than the synthetic is no longer easily persuasive, but we certainly do find ourselves giving pause here.

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