While our lives move increasingly online via social networking, blogging and online gaming, there is a likewise increasing urgency to establish the moral framework of a world ripe with possibility and shrouded in anonymity. Particularly within online gaming worlds such as Second Life and World of Warcraft, you have the freedom to run around the world as anything from a forty-year old business man to a four-year old girl, or even a mythological beast, if that’s your inclination. You can see what it’s like to fly. You can even experiment with your deepest, darkest fantasies, and no one would know who was behind it.
Herein lies the question of The Nether, which has transferred from the Royal Court to the Duke of York’s Theatre in London, alongside its run off-broadway. The play, written by Jennifer Haley, follows characters who have submitted a portion of their lives to The Hideaway, a virtual world that one man has created, and are brought to question the moral issues of a place where they can “live without consequence”.
Within the nether – what the internet is called by 2050 – The Hideaway is a safe space where visitors can indulge desires that would be considered criminal outside of this realm. It is a beautiful space, gloriously imagined in Es Devlin’s set design complete with trees, mirrored walls and ornate furniture. It is of stark contrast to the equally beautiful but cold, harsh world of the interrogation room, where Morris, sharply played by Amanda Hale, questions Sims, the creator of this realm. They sit before a screen filled with images of the face being interrogated, from close-ups of a moustache to a blinking eye, enhancing this notion of multiple identities and existing in many places at once – our online as well as offline lives.
But in The Hideaway, you choose your identity. Your age, gender and ethnicity are all up to you. You can wear what you want, talk how you want, and as Sims puts it, it is “a place where I can be my fucking self”. Because where is the real self? The play makes a very strong argument that while the idea of ‘the self’ is slave to a series of realms – school, work, home – why should an online realm be regarded as any less real?
That is what is particularly intriguing about this play, this production, and its extended hand towards a conversation with gaming and the digital world. Because although what the audience sees is a 3D, ‘real life’ version of a digital world, it is still a step beyond ‘reality’ as we conventionally understand it. Instead of a computer screen, we have a proscenium arch. Instead of graphics rendering, we have costume, lighting and make-up. These characters are only real to the extent that the actors have invested themselves in their portrayal, and the same goes for gaming.
It is an off-kilter limbo land, with a darkness that is embraced to provoke an altogether bleak, chilling atmosphere. Through Jeremy Herrin’s direction, the play drives forwards with urgent, gripping intensity as it asks questions about our future that are as crucial now as they inevitably will be in 2050: How will we police a space that is a virtual reality, but where people can commit harmful, illegal acts? As virtual worlds blur further into the ‘real’ world with advances such as wearable technology, what will be the after-care for the trauma of such events? Most controversially, should there be a space outside of reality that is an outlet for people with unlawful desires and inclinations?
What we see in a climax that rings in the ears is that even in a world seemingly without consequence, the human behind the digital realm will suffer the repercussions. Love is still a thing and death is still a thing, no matter what your avatar looks like, and no matter which world you choose to exist in. Through this bright, buzzing production of The Nether, it transpires that the virtual world can be the most human world of all.