Theatre Review: The Nether, Duke of York’s and How To Hold Your Breath, Royal Court

Maxine Peake (Dana) and Michael Shaeffer (Jarron) in How to Hold Your Breath at the Royal Court Theatre. Pictures Manuel Harlan.

Maxine Peake (Dana) and Michael Shaeffer (Jarron) in How to Hold Your Breath at the Royal Court Theatre. Picture: Manuel Harlan.

The future never looks good in the arts. You rarely read a book, see a play, watch a TV programme about the world 30 years from now and see people contentedly and comfortably living in a world overflowing with food, water and oil.

By coincidence, I spent the first week of February watching two playwrights’ visions of the miserable future that awaits us. First up was Zinnie Harris‘ new play at the Royal Court, How To Hold Your Breath followed by The Nether, a play that started life at the Sloane Square theatre before transferring to the Duke of York’s last month.

How To Hold Your Breath is the cautionary tale of how a one night stand can lead to the economic collapse of the European Union. Dana, played by the captivating Maxime Peake, meets a handsome man in a bar only for her blissful post-coital bubble to burst as he tells her he’s a Demon called Jarron (played with sinister charm by Michael Shaeffer) and he absolutely insists on paying her €45 for her services. Oof. Rightly pissed off, Dana tells the Demon to shove his money up his eurozone, a decision that proves rather unwise as the Demon’s wrath brings down the Western world as we know it.

As catastrophe reigns, Dana and her pregnant sister Jasmine (Christine Bottomley) attempt to find their way from Berlin (where the play is set) to Alexandria where Dana has been invited for an interview for a research post. Their journey continues in the same slightly surreal tone, a kind of apocalyptic Alice in Wonderland where a librarian keeps popping up with ‘how to… ’books for all eventualities  like Carroll’s White Rabbit with a library card.

There’s an awful lot going on in Harris’ issue heavy play and as a result it feels unrelentingly bleak with seemingly little purpose. Luckily we have Maxine Peake in the lead, an actor capable of conveying a 100 emotions with a flick of an eye. The performances are the cornerstone of Vicky Featherstone’s production, elevating it  above its muddleness. Peake is well supported by a talented cast all of them digging deep and extracting some emotion from the play’s curious coldness.

The Nether is a more coercive play despite tackling some very big issues. Set in 2050, the Nether is an virtual world where people create other identities and fantasy lives, although the moral codes of the real world remain, in theory.

Within the Nether, a man named Sims (an imposing Stanley Townsend) has created the Hideaway, a faux Victorian house of which he, as Papa, is head. There is nothing upstanding about this chocolate box world Sims has created, its purpose is to allow people to use the children of the house as they please. But, as this is the virtual world, these children aren’t who they appear, they too are adults, opting for these roles and seemingly complicit in their abuse.Isabella Pappas as Sims’ favourite Iris, gives a wonderful performance and the part being played by a child adds to the moral murkiness.

The Nether, Duke of York's

David Calder and Stanley Townsend in The Nether, Duke of York’s

Jennifer Haley’s clever script is ambiguous in its moral message and like the detective (played with stern intensity by Amanda Hale) in charge of the investigation, we’re never sure if what goes on in The Hideaway is a crime if all involved are, in the real world, consenting adults.

As much as this is a futuristic moral maze, The Nether is first and foremost a detective play with plenty of surprises in the taut script that twists and turns with dexterity, building the intensity. Director, Headlong’s Jeremy Herrin stretches the suspense tight for a gripping 1 hour 20 minute play that will leave you buzzing with questions.

The Nether doesn’t however look much like your average detective story; it’s super sleek and Es Devlin’s set design and Luke Halls’ video design are fabulous, mixing technological polish with imaginative aesthetics much like Haley’s play itself.

by Suzanne Elliott

The Nether, Duke of York’s until April 25th 2015

How To Hold Your Breath, Royal Court until March 21st 2015

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