Privacy, Donmar Warehouse, theatre review


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How do we balance the right to privacy with the demands of security, in a post-Snowden age? An age where we also, quite voluntarily, upload reams of information about ourselves every day? Privacy is a big, grabby attempt by playwright James Graham to tackle that most sprawling issue-cluster: The Internet.

Graham interviewed a host of politicians, journalists, judges, tech and security experts, who we hear verbatim. It could be a David Hare-style state of the nation piece, but Privacy frequently takes a jokey approach: there are as many lols about stalking dates on facebook as there are grave considerations about government surveillance. Josie Rourke’s production also cannily uses mass audience interaction via smartphones: leave them on, it’s selfie time!

The highly self-aware set up is this: a shambling young man with intimacy issues - The Writer (an excellent Joshua McGuire) - is coaxed by a sassy, bossy theatre head - The Director (Michelle Terry) - to find his identity online, to embrace modern technology. The show follows The Writer’s attempts to make sense of it all.

It doesn't quite succeed. Graham has bitten off more than he can chew - or than we can digest. The jollity can tip from fun to facetious or comically banal (facebook can predict if couples will stay together, we’re told wryly; the cast sing a doo-wop version of Article 8 of the Human Rights Act). Yet the shadowy government use of our data is not always crisply examined. Eye-rolling about targeted online ads for sofas sits oddly alongside the unfolding of the Snowden revelations; Privacy is scattergun, never quite joining the dots between the personal and the political.

There's about four plays unfolding here: a heavyweight political investigation into modern surveillance, a sweetly awkward internet dating rom-com, a formally experimental expose of online trails, and a thriller-style docudrama about the Snowden leaks.

What unites them is a laudably questing, striving spirit. It’s clear where Graham’s sympathies lie - like The Guardian journalists who published details of intelligence agencies’ data-holding, he thinks we need more debate about the erosion of privacy. And the earnest assertion that The Director makes - that asking the question “is what art is for” - is spot on. I’m glad they’re asking: they just maybe asked too many questions all at once...

The cast is snappy, switching between characters deftly. They’re helped by Lucy Osborne’s tech-savvy design: a back wall moulded with the old-fashioned form of identification - fingerprints - also serves as a screen for the modern form - an internet search. Names, ages and photos handily pop up; elegant infographics visually explain the technically tricky bits.

And Privacy makes the abstract land firmly in your own backyard too: snippets and places from your own life may flash up on screen, be read out, mined just from the ordinary information you give when booking a ticket. There’s a genuine shiver of recognition, and a cold terror at being further exposed - even if they've only got access to data you gave out willingly or posted publicly online… In this, Privacy is a brilliantly devilish wake-up call to consider your digital footprint.