Stanley Townsend has played some sinister types in his time, but this may well be a personal best. As “Papa”, he has designed and runs an online virtual-reality site where sexual and violent abuse of children is not only permitted but more or less obligatory. Townsend’s achievement, and those of playwright Jennifer Haley (who won the 2013 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize with this piece) and director Jeremy Herrin, is to make such a figure and such a situation understandable if not outright sympathetic. Over barely an hour and a quarter Haley’s play at first challenges us to think the unthinkable, then almost seduces us into it.
In this day-after-tomorrow reality, the “real” world has gone to pot (“I miss the trees,” remarks one character), most dealings are conducted in “the Nether” and an enforcement agency tries to regulate those activities by “in-world” standards. But when the online “children” are avatars of consenting adults, is this not at once an Orwellian notion of thoughtcrime and a medieval doctrine of essentialism in declaring one particular continuum to be the “proper” one whose values apply also to all others?
Townsend’s Papa, bearish to the detective interrogating him yet tender in his virtual incarnation with his young beloved Iris, claims that what count in his “realm” are not actions, which are free from consequence, but ongoing relationships. Since the play cannot show us any of the acts, these relationships are what we see, and they become persuasive, especially when “in-world” figures grow to be identified with their avatars and we find ourselves thinking that the drama simultaneously has five characters and only three. The play works as far as we give up our own preconceptions about the essential wickedness of “internet porn” and must then question both our original position and our change of mind, however temporary the latter.
Herrin’s production at first looks as if it may have been over-inflated from the Royal Court’s upstairs studio, until the bare interrogation room of Es Devlin’s set unfolds to become various parts of Papa’s online “Hideaway”. Amanda Hale is a remorseless, brittle detective, David Beames a dignified, intelligent suspect and (on the press night) Zoe Brough the little girl who is the disconcerting focus of so much emotional and legal-philosophical attention. Following as it does Tim Crouch’s Adler & Gibb in the main house, this signals an exhilaratingly daring direction in programming for the Court under artistic director Vicky Featherstone. It is the very best kind of uncomfortable viewing.