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HNT brings virtual child brothel, a life without consequences

Art should challenge. The National Theatre explores the limits of virtual child pornography with The Nether: can you live 'without consequences'?

The National Theatre rehearsed The Nether since early this year for staging from early March to early May 2021. That did not go ahead because of corona, on which the set was turned into a film set for production of a livestream; highly recommended. Last days only a few 'physical' performances remained at Theater aan het Spui in The Hague, less intense and penetrating; but wonderful that it can be done again.

The Nether is an excellently played and directed science fiction play about the moral boundaries in the successor to our current internet, a vast network of virtual realities. That much more emphatically defines lives; it dominates physical life.

'The Nether' is also a thought experiment on morality, sexuality and identity in a hyper-realistic virtual world, with a 'Victorian' house The Haven where adults are allowed to indulge their lust on avatars of underage boys and girls for a fee. The creator ('Daddy') offers a realm where children and adults choose avatars to make sexual, emotional commitments without caring about the ethical questions.

With not only images and sound, but also smells and feelings, participants are physically connected to it and have the experience there and at that moment lose their consciousness in the 'real' world. Does your body still make the distinction then?

If not, should the same traditional laws and morals apply as in the traditional world? Are child abuse as well as murder and rape in the digital world as reprehensible and illegal as physically? The victim does not die, but have you still committed murder?

What is real? What is allowed? Everything is allowed, because the brothel offers "role-play by mutual consent", says founder-owner Mr Sims/Papa (Rick Paul van Mulligen with black hair). A female police inspector (Yela de Koning) thinks very differently: fantasies in The Nether constitute punishable acts in the real world.

She pursues Dad/Sims, as well as his client (Jaap Spijkers, father of the director) who is even willing to trade his real life as a successful teacher and beloved father for his permanent online avatar in the paedophile world.

The child Iris (Shelly Bos) arouses their lust. Detective Houtnoot (Leandro Ceder) loses himself in his fact-finding in love with Iris. Is that allowed and possible? Is he overstepping his professional book or was it a game?

Moral swamp

Dad insists that there is no relation to reality and no physical or mental harm is done, but that real child abuse is prevented by offering paedophiles a safe online space to satisfy their desires. A set by Studio Dennis Vanderbroeck makes the contrast and transition between the two worlds fluid.

'The Nether asks a lot of questions about our morality and what people's rights we are allowed to curtail, it's a moral quagmire,' Nina Spijkers said. The trailer offers a nice summary, the podcast the explanation (on Spotify). In it, the director talks about her fantasy of fighting with 'dragons and fucking elves'. Nails says we are 'very close' to such a blending of virtual and digital, also brought closer by the corona crisis.

I don't believe any of that, although I once described a penetrating case of a British murder that followed an online sm-fantasy produced from the Netherlands, and for that was indicted before the Press Council. 'Acquittal' followed, but one can continue to question the connection between 'dream and deed'. (See also the poem The Marriage By Elsschot).

Much more, this probing, excellent play raises real (well...) questions about dealing with imagination. Fantasies with dragons and elves are trivial compared to virtual child pornography, but so are other much more sensitive imaginings: killing your nasty colleague, cheating with your tough neighbour; blunting racism. To what extent can you "lose yourself in virtual lives. A great example is the comic con (also in the Netherlands) where people continue their virtual game in reality, in this case innocent types

'The Nether' ends after an hour and a half with the brothel being shut down and the inspector no longer pursuing 'daddy' and saying: 'You are free now'. But you know as a viewer: his freedom has just been taken away from him. Mr. Sims is again at the mercy of the - until then successful self-control - to physically leave children in the family and of the neighbours alone. A perfect ending!

Dutch law

The American writer of the play, Jennifer Haley, is an acclaimed playwright and screenwriter of, among others, the Netflix series Mindhunter. Her theatre text The Nether was first staged in California in 2013, and received an award and several nominations.

Haley seeks us answers to the question of whether you should want to ban fantasy, culminating in a virtual world. That question also played out in Dutch law. After all, under the ban on child pornography also includes imagination: 'In addition to child pornography consisting of images of real children, production, possession and distribution of drawn images is also prohibited. This virtual child pornography usually involves animations. Virtual child pornography is punishable because it suggests sexual abuse of children.'

Or Article 240 of the Penal Code has stated since 2002 that a person who distributes, offers, openly exhibits, manufactures...possesses or accesses images of sex in which a person under 18 is "involved or appears to be involved" is liable to imprisonment for up to four years.

The 'seemingly involved' led to a 2011 conviction of the Rotterdam District Court to a penalty for virtual images ("photoshop") that "in themselves or in combination with the text added to them, are unmistakably and objectively intended to arouse sexual arousal or other sexual purposes.

The judges found "with their own observation" that the images "cannot be said to be unrealistic. The Supreme Court addressed the issue in 2013, in clear words On determining whether it appears genuine. The Supreme Court upheld a ruling of the Arnhem court, which held that Hentai images - Japanese erotic cartoons in Manga style - need to be qualified as non-realistic and therefore not child pornography.

Art and prohibition of fantasy

The ruling means that not all manifestations of paedophile fantasy are necessarily banned. The ban on fantasy and realisation recurs in the play, with the question of whether it is better to let fantasy be expressed as long as children themselves do not suffer.

Then another difficult question: is theatre about child pornography as in The Nether also a virtual form and therefore punishable? No children are abused, but is the suggestion stimulating? Is it "behaviour that may become part of a subculture that promotes child sexual abuse"?

You get into the atmosphere of the discussion of Rainer-Werner Fassbinder's 'The Dirt, the City and Death' that shocked Jews and led to protest brought, in defiance of the Jewish writer's intention to challenge about this; art, that is.

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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