In the future, there will be a place where all illicit sexual desire is permitted. Until then, we get to experience it vicariously via The Nether at the Duke of York’s.
The Royal Court’s 2014 production of Jennifer Haley’s The Nether has transferred to the West End – in part, I would guess, because of the astonishing set by Es Devlin. A police interrogation room is overshadowed by brightly dashing video projections, racing around till they form the outline of architectural shapes. Okay, okay, this has been shorthand for virtual reality since the 1982 film Tron. But then the projection dissolves and the scene transforms into a crystal bedroom, suspended in mid-air in a forest of silver birches. It is an astonishing Coup de Theatre: sexy, tempting and beautiful, bringing to life the idea of a time when the internet has become sensual. This crystal room is The Hideaway, a brothel in the internet where sexual affairs with young children are permitted thanks to the stern Victorian father, Papa, who acts as pimp and enable in this members’ only underworld.
There is a second Coup de Theatre in Jeremy Herrin’s production. The part of Iris, the child prostitute, is played by a child – when I saw the original production, the actor appeared to be about twelve-to-fourteen years old. It is the nature of virtual reality that we are freed from concrete reality, and even as I watched Iris coquettishly flirt with her client, I was constantly kept off-balance, unsure as to who or what Iris might be. Outside of Papa’s Hideaway, she could be anyone, or even a piece of computer code (indeed, her identity is the key to Jennifer Haley’s tightly-plotted police thriller).
The Nether is getting great reviews, acclaimed as challenging and edgy. Dominic Cavendish in The Telegraph believes it poses the question that, if no one is getting hurt and no one is being compelled, perhaps The Hideaway represents a utopia rather than a dystopia. The problem with his argument is that Papa has made it a condition of entry that the johns murder Iris with an axe after a set number of sessions – this is Papa’s kink, and his customers are psychologically scarred by the experience.
As long as Iris is played by a non-adult actor, the great shock is that we are actually seeing the most forbidden thing in the world, child prostitution, live on a West End stage. There is nothing explicit, of course, and certainly nothing that approaches the obscene. Nevertheless, the shock is real. I am not saying Herrin, Haley and The Royal Court are wrong to cast the play as they do, and exploit the audience’s expectations. But let’s be honest, this is a classic example of having ones cake and eating it: Iris is both a child, because she is played by a child, and not a child because Haley’s story assures us that Iris could only be an adult in reality.
In the Nether, there is a place for prurience, and prurience in every place.
Rating: a very uncomfortable four stars.