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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Donmar Warehouse


  Joshua McGuire and Paul Chahidi/ Ph: Johan Persson

Rooting around for an issue that defines our time, Donmar artistic director Josie Rourke was going to commission a play about press intrusion. Then she decided to ask James Graham, who has dethroned David Hare as our most astute political playwright, to look at the issue of privacy.

To make a play about how an entire generation or two have given privacy to the Internet, allowing it to be exploited by governments and corporations, Graham casts a playwright, known here as The Writer (Joshua McGuire) as his angst-ridden hero. And just like Graham, The Writer has been commissioned by the Donmar to write a play about privacy. Yes, it's all very knowing and incestuous in a pleasurably disorienting kind of way. But more importantly, this is how Graham avoids the often-sterile theatricality of verbatim plays past.

We first encounter McGuire's Writer as he researches his subject by interviewing 30 or more public figures, journalists, whistle-blowers and spooks. The cast of six play multiple roles as these often well-known real-life characters put their arguments about the extent to which big business and secret services – America and Britain's in particular – abuse this freely available data. These excerpts from Graham's interviews are threaded into the Writer's emotional life. He's single, and according to analyst Josh Cohen (the real version of which has written about our willingness to give up privacy), he is also relationship phobic.

But the play's energy comes when he leaves the stage. The audience's smartphones are encouraged to be kept on. Those who book tickets receive a message asking for permission to use information divulged as part of the booking process to establish their “digital footprint,” which may be used in that evening's performance. 

The action takes place in front of designer Lucy Osborne's digitally rendered wall of fingerprints, which helps to drum home the point that our mobiles are constantly broadcasting unique information about ourselves. There are several mind-expanding moments revealing just how much we have opened up our lives to those who want to exploit private data. Chief among these is when we're all encouraged to make the same Google search on our mobiles and it transpires that not all of us get the same result. Information is being tailored to match what the Internet knows about us. Who knew? Another experiment takes us through the steps on our smartphones that can reveal where it stores a list of places we have visited, complete with street maps showing the exact location. All of which – including a clip of Edward Snowden (apparently not filmed for the play) in which he is projected on such a huge scale you can see what appears to be a stress-related skin condition – is fascinating. And there are some terrifically slight-of-hand plot devices that would be a crime to reveal here.

But Privacy is more theatrical lecture than theatre. And unlike his rather brilliant play about parliamentary politics, This House, which like Privacy also tackles a fiendishly complex subject, Graham fails to find the human heart of his subject. And I mean that in both ways. What emotional heart there is, depends on the personal life of The Writer, about which we ultimately care little. And while hugely informative and revealing, Graham never quite gets to the nitty gritty about how, for most of us, information held by governments and corporations is going to turn us into victims.


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