The hacking saga takes to the stage
Plays based on the intercepted voicemails of volunteers will question our notions of privacy, says Alice Jones
It was only a matter of time – and pin numbers.
Tomorrow, at Theatre503 in south London, the hacking scandal makes its stage debut in a series of plays inspired by the voicemails of volunteers. A group of journalists, theatre staff and audience members have sacrificed their privacy to the dramatic cause, allowing the theatre to listen in to their messages. Once hacked, the names on the messages were scrambled and the transcripts handed out to a group of six playwrights to craft a 10-minute piece of theatre each. Their only instruction: don't let the truth get in the way of a good story.
This is not verbatim theatre in the mould of Alecky Blythe's London Road, rather the sextet – who know only the age, gender and profession of their subjects – have used the material as the jumping-off point for a range of stories. Some are romantic, inspired by the long, lovelorn messages left by an ex-boyfriend; some work the tapestry of workaday monologues – from a parent, a doctor's receptionist or a colleague – into an impressionistic portrait of modern man; and some touch on the media scandal itself.
"What you get is a glimpse into every aspect of the person's life but of course what you lack is any kind of context. You get messages from a mum saying 'Happy Birthday' but you also get those messages that say, 'Hi, give me a call, bye.' That frees you up to use your imagination," says Derek Bond, associate director of the theatre and chief hacker. "We're not looking for factual recreations of somebody's life. It's a stimulus, a glimpse through the window of their soul. And then you have to get creative and fill in the gaps."
Which is to say, there is more than a little dramatic licence about the project. Having willingly offered up their pin numbers (unlike the real-life victims), it must have been tempting for volunteers to delete the boring or embarrassing messages or even to ask friends to leave more inspiring offerings. One volunteer only managed one missed call, says Bond. "We said, 'Don't delete any messages and we'll try again in a couple of days'. They'd summoned up a few more by then."
Glib or not, the project probes how it feels to discover that you've been hacked, and where the boundaries between public and private lie. The writers have taken these one-sided conversations and embroidered them to their own ends: the volunteers, in contrast, have no voice, nor right of reply. And for audience members, aware that the plays they're watching are the result of an underhand creative process, it's an opportunity to question their complicity in the hacking debacle.
The anonymous hackees cover a range of backgrounds and ages, and the playwrights include Ben Ellis (who recently contributed to Rupert Goold's Decade cycle), Shunt associate Marcelo Dos Santos and Dominic Cavendish, theatre critic for The Daily Telegraph, a line-up in keeping with the theatre's commitment to emerging talent. The Olivier-winning The Mountaintop had its world premiere in the above-the-pub space and the theatre has previously nurtured playwrights such as Jack Thorne, Mike Bartlett and Morgan Lloyd-Malcolm on their way to the West End.
Hacked is the latest in a line of experimental projects including Decade (10 playwrights riff on a different year of the Noughties), Coalition (which paired playwrights with creatives from other fields, such as music, art and dance, to make work inspired by the new Government;) and PLAYlist (a series of plays about songs). "The music can be anything but the play has to be as long as or shorter than the piece which inspired it," explains Bond. "It's an opportunity to mix experienced writers with emerging talents who have never had their work produced before." Meanwhile, as journalists furiously type out their future bestsellers on the scandal and Hollywood casts around for the perfect fiery redhead to play Rebekah Brooks, theatre has proved the speediest to respond, beating all the other art forms to the scoop.
'Hacked', Theatre 503, London SW11 (020 7978 7040; www.theatre503.com) Tuesday to 4 October
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