As a nation, we didn’t respond all that strongly to Edward Snowden’s surveillance revelations. In America, where certain personal freedoms and a limit to government power is enshrined in the Bill of Rights, there is vocal outrage on both sides. Here, we collectively shrugged our shoulders, muttered something about how we always knew Google was reading our emails anyway, and bashed up some laptops. On an intellectual level, we knew it was bad. But it was hard to get emotionally wound up. It took your reviewer several days to fully grasp the issues — but then, anyone with access to Flickr can see she was on holiday at the time, so perhaps not paying full attention.
James Graham’s new play tackles this issue of privacy and our curiously ambivalent attitude towards it. “The Writer” (Joshua McGuire) is at the centre of the action — we’re partly inside “James Graham”‘s head and partly seeing reconstructed interviews he held with politicians, journalists, techies and campaigners. What starts as a personal experiment in being more open and sharing more of “himself” with the world becomes enmeshed in the larger issues that affect all of us, ranging from state intrusion to the nature of intimacy. And, of course, all that information we’re constantly scattering around as we move through our digital lives.
There are several very clever and fun set pieces where the audience demonstrates how much the internet knows about you, just from very simple inputs. (This is a show where it’s important to leave your phone turned on.) Then there are some more sobering moments where the Donmar’s tech team shows how much information can be gathered by the basic act of booking a ticket to the theatre (Google Streetview shot of your house, anyone?). It may change your relationship with your phone: treated almost as a child by so many, when in reality it’s a member of the Hitler Youth, constantly ratting on your activities to anyone who cares to listen.
Privacy wears both its frothy and darker elements with good humour, much like Graham’s previous hit This House (disclosure: this reviewer loved This House so much she saw it five times. But, if you’re following on Twitter, you’d already be well aware of this fact). He undercuts the potential formality and pomposity of verbatim plays — where a character strides on stage, announces their name and starts literally verbiaging — with jokes and whimsy, and in “The Writer James Graham” has created an everyman hero you want to take home and give a nice cup of tea.
If the play doesn’t have answers, it’s because nobody really does yet. But what it does have, finally, is that emotional kick. In an era when big data is supposed to be our saviour, we walked out of the Donmar feeling distinctly uncomfortable. Do we really want the internet — and, by extension, whoever has access to that information — to know when we’re ill, when our relationships are failing, how we’re feeling, before we even do ourselves? What do we have of us, our intrinsic essence, if our histories and preferences are stored in a datacentre somewhere in North Carolina? And how the hell do you turn off Location History on an Android phone?
Plaudits also have to be given to Josie Rourke for a production that seamlessly uses technology to warn and amuse in its own right, and to the excellent ensemble cast. Joining McGuire are Paul Chahidi, Michelle Terry, Nina Sosanya, Jonathan Coy and Gunnar Cauthery who all smoothly transition between multiple characters (Cauthery’s William Hague impression is spectacular) and make breaking the fourth wall look as easy as — well, as easy as spewing your private life all over social media.
Privacy runs at the Donmar Warehouse Theatre, Earlham Street WC2, until 31 May. Tickets £7.50-£35. Availability is extremely limited for most dates, but £10 tickets are released every Monday in the Barclays Front Row promotion, and if you’re willing to queue early in the morning there are tickets on sale each day. We saw this production on a complimentary press ticket but, given our previous history with James Graham’s plays, may well be joining you in the queue.