The Nether – My Avatar / My Self (Theatre Review)

The Nether

Catnip Productions and The Seymour Centre

13th September to 7th October You can grab your tickets here. 

The question of our straddling the digital and ‘meatspace’ is being deferred more and more to a legal framework rather than an ethical, which relies upon the problematical assertion that the law can handle these ethical issues. It is this question of ethics Jennifer Hale want’s us to consider in her play The Nether, as we see Morris (Katie Fitchett) incapable of using rule of law to get the answers to her questions. This follows Max Weber’s assertion paraphrased as; If one wants to behave rationally and regulate one’s action according to true principles, what part of one’s self should one renounce? What is the ascetic price of reason? In other words, does our good behavior in ‘meatspace’, warrant an ‘outlet’ for that which we are forced to give up? Foucault reversed this to state, how have certain kinds of interdictions become the price required for attaining certain kinds of knowledge about oneself? What must one know about oneself to be willing to accept such renunciation? To use the example put to us in The Nether, do we need an avatar world online to give pedophiles an outlet as prevention for committing this crime in real life, or should our avatars allow us to understand why we are pedophiles, allow each of us to become one, and then ask why is pedophilia deemed so much worse than other social evils?

However, under Justin Martin’s direction, Jennifer Haley’s question of The Other becomes more important. Is pedophilia still pleasurable if the one directing the ‘child’ avatar is an old man in real life? Why musat feminists be trolled if The Game has nothing to do with real life, why not just keeping attacking women through Grand Theft Auto? If our fifteen minutes of fame is online, is it real? All these questions, and those posed toward the end of The Nether concern our relationship to objects and The Other, and ask questions not about our own ‘realness’ or ‘behavior’ but about how these things translate to other humans in real life. If online is an outlet and not the same as ‘meatspace’ then why must responses to our online avatar be in ‘meatspace?’

Yet the technological space is such a powerful teaching tool, Institutions are revolutionizing themselves to adapt to a game space, because avatar building is such a pleasurable concept inside the collaborative and creative potentials of the learning game environment. Despite technological and pedagogical complexities, student demand and early stage results drive this initiative. Learning often starts with avatar building. The avatar, to borrow a phrase from Derrida, is the one we are/I am (following). When in viewing mode, one can only follow one’s avatar like a shadow (another phrase examined in The Nether). And, yet we are/I am this avatar, the one that we are/I am (following). Part of the attraction for students lies in dressing avatars to appear “cool” at school when finances might otherwise prevent. The ‘meatspace’ body that attends lectures is called a “Main” but the avatar body is a fully-fleshed image of precisely the way the “Main” wishes to appear at school. Discussions of the ethics of avatar design ensue, as does the relationship between an avatar and a “Main” has the power to make apparent what Foucault means when he calls ethos “the relation that one has with oneself”. “Indeed avatars render more apparent the scattering of subjectivity and the possibility of one subject “working upon” another within (or in the case of the avatar, without) the same body.” (The Avatar that therefore I am(following) Tekla Schell and Trevor Hoag, Currents in Electronic Literacy)

In The Nether, Jennifer Haley as interpreted by Justin Martin asks us to consider when “know thyself” became more important than “The care of the self.” Because taking care of the self primarily involves our relationships with others, a disproportionate weighing in on knowledge surpasses that of knowing others. Ethics is not just a theory. It is equally a practice, an embodiment and a style of life. There can be no moral system in modernity produced from a firm foundation concerning the nature of (hu)Man and thereby a basis for human action. When I am an avatar, the horrible truth is, I must be the only one in order for it to work properly.

The Nether, directed by Justin Martin currently showing at The Seymour Center is not one for the faint of heart but it provides ample juice for those seeking a strong mental challenge. Pip Runciman’s evocative set is a disturbingly recognisable dystopian world that calls forth Our Self on screen as we always are nowadays. Melanie Liertz’s costumes further seek to emphasise a divide that forges deeper connections to the real life of our histories. Justin Martin moves his cast in and out of shadows, in front of and behind screens and shifting through the audience. Just as we can’t pin characters down, they are terrifyingly real.

Performances are spot on and in command of their roles as ‘human’ and ‘avatar’ with a standout being Danielle Catanzariti in the chilling role of Iris. Equally challenging is Kim Knuckey’s role as Papa, but he performs it with great confidence and peace of mind. Alan Faulkner is heart wrenching as the tragic Doyle and Alec Snow properly wide-eyed yet not so innocent as Woodnut. Rounding out the strong cast is Katie Fitchett as Morris, holding our hand as we walk through this very complex and murky ethical terrain.

The Nether is a shocking play in many ways, but equally it provides an unavoidable moral challenge for our day. This is a marvelous theatre experience you will not soon forget.