Jennifer Haley isn’t a playwright I’d heard of before, but with the rave reviews of her play The Nether that’s transferred from the Royal Court to the West End I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see what I could learn from watching the show. The play actually premiered at the Kirk Douglas Theatre after winning the 2012 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize. Haley trained under playwright Paula Vogel at Uni and writes for theatre as well as for a Netflix series called Hemlock Grove.
I researched her a little before writing this piece (there’s a really great interview here) and found that one of the things she took from her training was to always push herself in what she writes and to have a go at writing what you hate! This way you learn to stretch yourself and really explore your potential whilst not staying wedded to the one genre you think you can write #goodgeneralwritingtip
- Police investigation format helped to introduce you to the world of the play
So The Nether came about because Haley hated the programmes that feature the predictable police procedural format (like CSI) and her ideas just grew from there. She definitely followed the format well and introduced the audience to the future time period the play is set in and the Nether (the name she gives what the internet has become in this future) through drip feeding the information through the police investigation interviews that make up a lot of the piece. It was a very clever way to also see the characters responding to difficult questions which told you a lot more about them in a short period of time, whilst also holding the story back as it followed the progression of the investigation.
There were 2 lovely monologues towards the end of the play that gave a snapshot into the back stories of the 2 main characters. Within the format she’d chosen it was right for them to be short, but I wished that there had been more of them so I could’ve gotten under the skin of what really motivated these characters to do what they did. The play was well balanced and I can see why it’s getting rave reviews and it’s a really interesting look via a police procedural format to something that’s more questioning about human relationships, but I would’ve liked to have got closer to the characters.
- Interesting use of multiple time frames
This won’t give anything away as to the plot and resolution, but Haley cleverly uses multiple time frames to at first keep the audience behind the narrative so you’re intrigued to get into the world of the play, and then we’re ahead of what’s happening as you start to understand the time shifts, and then she turns it on it’s head when you realise which time frame has driven the story on. In my play The Birdcatcher I work with 3 distinct time frames and this has definitely given me more confidence in experimenting with that more and even interspersing the scenes more directly. It was also a clever way to keep the audience engaged. Definitely something I’ll be playing with more.
- Character doubling
Something unique to this piece is that both the virtual reality world and the present world are held together in one set and at one point both worlds hold together happening at the same time. The interesting thing I found with seeing the virtual reality is that rather than the actors doubling up as more than one character, these characters became someone else whilst in the Nether playing across gender and across race which is something I’ve not seen before. Seeing this virtual world and character play in front of you was very powerful and a great device to add gravity, mystery and complexity to the story. Unless I’m writing about virtual reality or maybe a party where the characters leave who they are at the door, I can’t see a way of experimenting with this device! It brought a richness and visual depth to the story though and is definitely something to play with if you can figure out how!
I had a very busy February moving flats so apologies for this late entry, however when clearing out I found a copy of Elmina’s Kitchen by Kwame Kwei-Armah which I’ve always meant to read but haven’t, so he will be my March playwright.