• Drama
  • By James Graham
  • Directed by Josie Rourke
  • Cast includes: Gunnar Cauthery, Paul Chahidi, Jonathan Coy, Joshua McGuire, Nina Sosanya, Michelle Terry
  • Donmar Warehouse Theatre
  • Until 31st May 2014
  • Review by Ben Millson
  • 26 April 2014
Privacy
4.0Reviewer's Rating

There’s a fine line between privacy and secrecy. According to at least one of the collection of learned interviewees whose words have been worked into this excellent verbatim piece of theatre, it’s the difference between something which is yours by right of being human, and something which is hidden because if interrogated in the public eye, it would be deemed wrong, or immoral, or illegal.

The privacy debate has been growing over the last century now; world wars, cold wars, terrorism, and the growth of computing and social media have led to a world in which we expect less privacy for the bad guys, but share more about ourselves at the same time. In two and a half beautifully choreographed hours, Graham’s new play shows us what this means for the availability of information about ourselves, both by volume, and by who has it.

The play is loosely about a playwright, The Writer, being pushed by his director, The Director, into engaging with an electronic and social world to which he has previously not been privy, and to write a piece about his experiences, even as he falls down the rabbit hole. It’s smilingly meta, and provides a smart framework upon which to hang a broader discourse about privacy. Rather than pipe in the voices of those interviewed to provide the bulk of the dialogue about the world of, and effects upon, privacy, the decision has been made to have the cast of 6 (bar Joshua McGuire, who is on permanent and excellent duty as The Writer) impersonate a cast of individuals ranging from Shami Chakrabarti through to Terry Leahy, with frequent and bizarre stops at William Hague. The effect is a roiling staccato of voices contributing to a polyphonous debate executed at high speed with plenty of dexterity; the cast have studied the vocal and postural cues of their marks, and differentiate clearly and amusingly.

The show is streaked with audience interaction – in the first act we are told to “leave our phones on” – and though parts of this are fun (selfies!), the performance shows us much more importantly the depths of information storage in our own lives, and how the balance between what we know is being collected, and what is being collected has shifted gradually but alarmingly into a global and permanent monitoring. Did you know for instance, that buried within the depths of your iPhone is a record of the places you go, and how long you stay in those places? I did not, and find out was harrowing. The gentleman next to me commented at the interval that it is a wonder that we don’t see such tools in use on Law and Order, and indeed in the second Act a pastiche came out; amusing, certainly, but alarming also.

Where the first Act is funny and informative, a fast paced introduction to the lengths to which big business goes to understand us, the second is serious. The weighting of the material shifts towards those Governmental intrusions uncovered and unveiled by Edward Snowden, and more legitimately frightening information is displayed. In and around this, Graham deftly weaves the verbatim dialogue of his own numerous interviews with individuals, including politicians, NGO employees and journalists, with a direct stake in the privacy conversation.

The excellence of the piece stems from the capacity of the work to bombard us with an unceasing variety of information, delivered in various tones and through various narrative structures, without losing the sense that this debate, though fractured, murky, and encompassing factors as diverse as the Tesco club card and an unknown someone (possibly a man called Bill, but probably not) listening through Alan Rusbridger’s phone at all times (and not just to his phone calls, but rather quite literally listening through the microphone to everything going on around the phone) into a cohesive whole.

This is achieved in large part through an excellent management of data and display. A large screen on the back wall which is cast as gently indented with an array of fingerprints plays host to an adroitly managed selection of data. From time to time graphs of Google Ngrams pop up, or the screen of an iPhone to engage us more closely with what would otherwise feel a staged conversation. Most helpfully, as the lengthy stream of verbatim quoters moves across the stage, little name tags will appear on the back wall to keep us in the loop and on the pace. Very smart, very interesting, and – if you can get your hands on a ticket – go.

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