A WORLD FOR THE WICKED
It quotes a Roethke poem: “Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire..” Indeed it is. In a shiningly hyper-real world suspended in the air, a pretty little girl in a Victorian pinafore welcomes a middle-aged man to her storybook bedroom, with dolls’ house and rocking-chair. Suggestively she strokes a toy and indicates that he can do what he likes to her, including savage murder. “Perhaps you’d like to start with the axe? That usually comes after, but if you’re more inclined that way…” Later, she reassures him “It’s all right, I always resurrect”.
For she is not real,nor is the room itself: perfect in glassy detail, a shining box framed in screen-saver foliage. We have watched this elegant period house and its inhabitants seem to form, shimmering, from grids and lines: a virtual paradise for paedophiles, complete in sound, touch, smell. The Internet has evolved into “The Nether”, where businesses, educations and fantasies flourish . Wealthy people can even afford to “cross over” opting for life-support and life entirely in these unreal worlds.
Meanwhile, before returning to daily reality men like this can be avatars doing unspeakable things, “without consequence”. Below the “screen” – live actors seeming unreal – a detective at a bare table “inworld” is interrogating the patriarchal, pompous businessman “Papa” who creates and hosts this exquisite child brothel, demanding where he hides the server.
Yes, once again the Royal Court is chilling our spine (its Let the Right One In vampire-fest is running in the West End). But Jennifer Haley’s 80-minute thriller is not after mere sensation, but proves one of the most stunningly intelligent, important and brilliantly executed pieces of the year. Co-produced with Headlong and designed by Es Devlin, it makes brilliant visual use of the idea of virtuality, with the perfect floating world forming and fading above the grim interrogation table. Jeremy Herrin directs a text so understatedly strong that every line and gesture builds intensity. Papa is Stanley Townsend, bluff and defiant; the tense troubled interrogator is Amanda Hale, Ivanno Jeremiah is an undercover investigator – or is he? – and David Beames is a nervy, puzzling, unhappy customer. On opening night the child was played by Zoe Brough: a professional debut of unnerving assurance. She is not, by the way, required to undress beyond long Victorian pantaloons, or to do or say anything unduly troubling. Except perhaps about the axe. That the whole situation is troubling – and that she is in fact a complex sequence of computer code – is is a paradox we are drawn towards, fascinated, horrified, questioning.
Its strength is in those very topical questions: how far can we police imagination? Should we cavil when imagination can be fed with such realism? How wrong is it to indulge and encourage cruel and horrible fantasies if there is no “inworld” consequence? Is it corrupting, or better than loosing such desires in the real world? It is not only paedophilia we should think about: not far from you now, the odds are that some fresh-faced 12-year-old is happily shooting ‘whores‘ in a game like Grand Theft Auto. As Papa says “porn drives technology” – always has, ever since 19c dirty photos. His codes, motivated by awful urges, are now so advanced and effective in their realism that he suspects the law-envorcers of “stealing them to sell to Disney”.
Serious sci-fi has always had this ability to ask big philosophical questions, and Haley does it with finesse and humanity. She also provides two tremendous, unexpected twists towards the end. Who can ask more?