For three short weeks in July 2014, The Nether stunned audiences Downstairs at the Royal Court. An explosively provocative new play, it explored the consequences of a fully technologised future. The play confronted some of our most prescient fears about the modern world, examining one of the only remaining contemporary taboos. It was technically thrilling, pushing the limits of what could be achieved on a traditional stage and inventively attacked the challenge of realising a virtual word in a literal medium. A theatrical hand grenade detonated in Sloane Square and The Nether became a word-of-mouth hit that stunned its audiences.
Radical, even by Royal Court standards, the transfer of The Nether to the Duke of York’s in the West End is both an unexpected and brave undertaking. It’s an unlikely play, even simply in the fact it is new writing, to offer to a West End audience; an incendiary subject, unsettling contemporary questions, and not a single show tune. It is also immensely technically demanding, with Es Devlin’s award-winning set and Luke Halls’ video design requiring the elaborate automation of a Grade II listed building in order to create the virtual Nether realm on stage every night. It isn’t as simple as transplanting the production from one particular room to another, rather, with each theatre having a specific relationship to its audience and presenting a unique set of challenges, the transfer necessitates a significant re-design.
New actors have also joined the company, with David Calder taking on the role of Doyle, originally played by David Beames at the Royal Court. We also welcome two new Irises into the fold, along with a brilliant team of understudies - all of whom will keep the show running throughout its twelve week residency. The fresh eyes and minds in the rehearsal room lead to a wealth of original discoveries for both the new and returning members of the cast.
After only two weeks of intense re-rehearsal, it’s time to move into the theatre. The ‘fit up’ - or installation of the set - has been happening over the previous week and so is ready and waiting for our arrival. The various creative departments - from lighting to sound to video - have also been busy preparing, and each is now complemented with an associate who will help to realise the production in its new home. This often happens with large scale transfers as, due to the nature of freelance work, it is difficult to ensure that each and every member of the creative team will be free for the crucial production period. The presence of a trusted associate allows the head of department to maintain their other commitments without disrupting the process of getting the show up and running. It is an impressive sight to look out across the stalls at the myriad monitors and faces and note just how many people are involved in bringing a show to fruition; some teams, including directing and design, have even tripled!
Although the fundamental blueprint of The Nether is the same as it was at the Royal Court, the complex new elements have necessitated a week’s worth of technical rehearsals. This is also a decisive period in ensuring all pieces of the show fit together and complement each other. The synchronisation between the video and stage design is crucial and, although it looks seamless, it takes a long time, and a lot of trial and error, to achieve its simple musicality. Conducted from the stalls by Jeremy Herrin (director) and Des Kennedy (associate director), it is a valuable opportunity to refine the work that was begun at the Royal Court and, as Jeremy explains to the assembled company, get closer to a ‘perfect’ version of the show.
Naturally, as inevitable in theatre, we encounter a few problems of varying degrees of disaster along the way. But the skill of the crew and the production team mean these hiccoughs are dealt with swiftly and exactly. Some outside-the-box thinking, and some inventiveness led from the front by Linsey, the company stage manager, means all of the onstage business, including the numerous lightning-fast scene changes, are completed with what resembles military precision.
We will then begin three weeks’ worth of previews, in which the show will be performed to the public each night and then new notes and changes will be incorporated the following day. Up until now, we have been working in a vacuum so by bringing it to an audience we add in the last, and most necessary, ingredient - one which is consistently unpredictable and will inevitably alter the dynamic of the show.
So, even after the luxury of two dress rehearsals and the show’s previous run, the first preview is a nerve-wracking yet exciting time. After 75 minutes of rapt attention, the audience spills out onto St Martin’s Lane, chattering animatedly or in a state of contemplative silence. Whilst we still have three weeks of work ahead of us, it is a relief to hear that we are on the right track, and thrilling to feel the electric response to the rousing world of The Nether, nestled and ticking in the heart of the West End.