As titles go, The Nether is a particularly fitting one. There’s something vaguely unsettling built into that second word, and the place it has come to describe – a liminal world of menace and uncertainty – keenly reflects the themes of the Olivier Award-winning work, a dark masterpiece penned by American playwright Jennifer Haley.
The play, celebrated by critics upon its debut in March 2013, is a “sci-fi crime drama”, which is a rare combination of words indeed. But there’s no reason for it to be. Although such oddball genre hybrids are rare, they also happen to be timely, what with the hellfire dystopia that we find ourselves mired in the middle of. Our worst collective nightmares have all come true, and stories about the suppression of personal freedoms, the surveillance power of the state and the vicious nature of capitalistic expansion aren’t just far-flung fantasies; they are based, horrifyingly, very much in the contemporary.
“How do we find a legal framework for the internet, and for the notion of a virtual landscape? And at the same time, how do we govern and police that?”
Indeed, The Nether is especially on point at present, thanks in no small part to Australia’s own reassessment of meta-data laws and the nature of personal liberties in a digital age. We might feel like the internet is making us safer, more connected, and more politically conscious than we have ever been before, but that progress is coming at a price – one that sees us sacrificing our freedoms, and our identities. And although we like to point our fingers at America as the ultimate manifestation of late capitalism’s flaws, we Australians aren’t much less ethically or intellectually compromised.
Not that any of that means that The Nether was an easy work to bring to life, mind you, as the play’s director Justin Martin now knows all too well. “It’s a tricky play to pull off, partially because my interest is in how to plug it into a conversation that’s happening in Australia at the moment,” the rising theatrical star explains. “I think on some level, like all good plays, it’s raising questions that we all ultimately have to answer, and will have to answer very soon. How do we find a legal framework for the internet, and for the notion of a virtual landscape? And at the same time, how do we govern and police that?
Given the play touches on serious crimes – not to mention grave ethical transgressions – it will undoubtedly prove a sombre and controversial night out at the theatre.
“That’s why it’s so interesting here now, two years after the meta-data laws have been passed, and now they’re being renewed. Back then they originally said that meta-data would only be used to stop terrorism and the like, but might now potentially be used in civil cases. That notion of, if something isn’t real in terms of it being digital or virtual, how do we find a framework within which to exist in that world? Because we spend so much time in it these days. I think it’s important now, but it’s going to be more important tomorrow.”
Thematically, The Nether seems to fit into that genre of dark, ethically-ambiguous narratives that are the bread and butter of television’s Black Mirror – although it has a fair dash of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One about it too. In the close future, the internet has become the Nether; a universe of connected virtual realms. In such a world, where (as Hassan-i Sabbah once proposed) nothing is true and everything is permitted, how is illegality reconciled with reality? Given the play touches on serious crimes – not to mention grave ethical transgressions – it will undoubtedly prove a sombre and controversial night out at the theatre; though playing for shocks is far from its purpose.
“I think there are three aspects of the show. There’s the ethical element, there’s the crime thriller, which gives it its drive, and at the core of it there’s this love story, which was the same with [Martin’s earlier production] Let The Right One In. If you care for those people, then in a way, the fear around them and what might happen to them becomes very palpable and very complicated.
The Nether is guaranteed to have its audiences discussing the ethical implications of its premise long after the curtain has closed.
“I think this play does that in a very clever and very moving way. It’s not horror … but there’s certainly tension, and that’s because it hits at things that are happening in the country right now. These are issues that affect us all, and we have to think about them. One of the big ones is, there are cameras in most computers, and anyone can have access to them, and that’s a terrifying idea.”
The challenges of instilling tension within an audience notwithstanding, The Nether is guaranteed to have its audiences discussing the ethical implications of its premise long after the curtain has closed – and this is what Martin finds most important.
“With this, there’s a certain question of how do we be Australian within this changing world where the internet is becoming something we not only use, but rely on. How do we exist within that? And that excites me. It’s something we’re going to have to wrestle with.
“I think the internet … it’s the promise of allowing us to fulfil certain dreams, of making things easy. But it’s also a tricky place. A lot of warfare happens there now, and it feels like the future questions of who we are and how we exist are going to involve that virtual world. Jennifer Haley, who wrote the play, is one of the few playwrights exploring that, and Charlie Brooker who made Black Mirror is one of the few TV writers exploring that. There’s really no legal precedence for the internet. We’re making up the rules as we go.”
The Nether is on at the Seymour Centre from Wednesday September 13 to Sunday October 7; for more info, head here.Write a Letter to the Editor