Jennifer Haley’s play is challenging to say the least – in its themes, its content, its emotional landscape – but Knotworks left me almost speechless. In an ambiguous near-future, a mysterious man named Mr Simms is interrogated by an impenetrable detective, Morris, regarding the ‘Hideaway’, a location on the dark web. What unravels is a disturbing journey into the psyches of people society would prefer to erase, and a deeply human exploration of our capacity for self-destruction and love. Identities shift under the all-consuming shadow of ‘the Nether’, an increasingly realistic platform where one can enter simulated worlds, and even ‘cross over’ permanently into a virtual existence.
It is a true testament to the acting that the audience is taken to the point of sympathy, and even to finding moments of laughter in such a horrifying context – the presence of an axe on stage at one point became a disarming moment of humour, despite our embedded values screaming at us to condemn the characters. That tough background work had gone into each part was evident. Madeleine Walker’s portrayal of an eleven-year-old girl, which struck a delicate balance between childlike innocence and a chilling, sinister edge of adulthood, stood out as a particularly subtle and studied performance. The naturalism and nuance Ieuan Perkins found as Woodnut pulled us ever further into the personal intricacies of the ethical issues at hand, while Shannon Hayes’ stormy and complex Morris battled the wonderful sensitivity of Jonny Wiles as Cedric Doyle. Rory Grant took on ‘Papa,’ arguably the toughest role to inhabit psychologically, with aplomb, and provided truly believable access to his mentality. Each actor impressed in their capability and willingness to strike to the core of a subject that theatre so often leaves murky.
There were points, particularly towards the beginning, where interaction felt a little lost on the expansive Playhouse stage; I was yearning to pull the scene closer, to share in the intensity between Simms and Morris. With Daisy Pearson’s abstract, Victorian-style set looming high over the actors, initial scenes felt somewhat dwarfed and therefore intangible, even while the intricacies of the plot and character work demanded our engagement. However, doubts in the first half were soon swept away by the second, where the action grew to fill its cleverly crafted surroundings and the piece continuously gained momentum, building to an utterly gripping denouement. The Nether culminated in the most beautifully directed and profound scene between Grant and Wiles, throwing the rest of the play into a tentative new light and leaving unanswered questions hanging in the air.
This is a gem of a play, challenging perceptions of gender, undermining notions of criminality and gripping intellectually and emotionally with moments of startling and disarming truth. Director Livi Dunlop has succeeded in bringing to life a bold, relevant and skilled production that certainly lies beyond the bracket of usual student drama – this is one not to be missed.