There are few arenas where the personal and the political are so utterly, obviously enmeshed in the 21st century as that of privacy of communications. Edward Snowden may be a useful figurehead, or martyr, to the cause, but as in James Graham’s superbly argued new play, he’s really only a fraction of the story. The most frightening and compelling player in this new battlefield is the softly glowing, ergonomically smoothed sheet of glass and silicon chips that we carry around with us. That’s the true theme and the most abiding image of this extremely un-Donmar Donmar show – what William Burroughs would call ‘the mark inside’, in this case, inside our pockets.
Joshua McGuire plays a fictionalised version of Graham himself, and in the loosest sense Privacy is a meta-narrative of its own construction, following the author’s progress as he interviews the impressive roster of journalists, technologists and politicians which make up the cheekily swerved verbatim portions of the text. Graham is drawn into a web of revelations regarding the recent history of data protection and his own vulnerability to the cold reading of snooping algorithms, and he draws us in with him.
Under Josie Rourke’s breezy, discursive direction, Privacy moulds into the rhythms and tinkly tablet-ness of a TED talk, or a Royal Institution Christmas lecture, before flipping back into genuinely chilling databursts and scraps of narrative. It’s a technical marvel of life-streamed data manipulation, fluttering infographics and snatches of interviews played out against Lucy Osborne’s intimidating backdrop of plaster-cast fingerprints. Everything moves with a fluidity which slips from reassuringly lush to threateningly easy as the depth of our complicity with our own surveillance is revealed. To give away too much would be to dash much of the show’s jolting power, but by allowing the audience to leave their mobile phones on, and through some exceedingly smart interactivity, the abstruse science Graham skilfully unearths is brought right to our doorstep (literally, in some cases).
It’s true that your existing depth of knowledge (or paranoia) regarding the creepy-ass consequences of our networked society will make a considerable difference to the show’s impact. If you keep yourself even moderately technologically informed, you’re unlikely to face too many surprises, but even when Privacy isn’t raising the hairs on the back of your neck, it’s richly entertaining. The excellent cast flip through Graham’s huge role-call of interviewees with infectious good humour, tipping knowing winks left, right and centre. It’s this spirit of playfulness that prevents the running time from weighing proceedings down, and makes Privacy feel a uniquely free-spirited production despite the weight of its subject matter.
There is a sense that, once the force of its theatrics has worn off, Privacy is a little less than thorough in its interrogation of the concepts it raises. Neither Graham nor his interviewees offer anything particularly weighty or conclusive regarding the relationship between privacy and safety, the relationship of private and publically owned interest groups, between corporations and governments, and it’s certainly far from a thorough investigation of Snowden or his motives.
What it is instead is a tech-savvy wallop of pure theatrical spectacle that freely absorbs cues from Ontroerend Goed, vodcasts, Derren Brown, sexy freakonomics and forum theatre, and creates a form entirely appropriate to and engaged with its theme. It sees Rourke dusting off her experimental chops, which can only be a good thing, and Graham building on his growing reputation of master of non-shit political theatre.
Above all, it’s a reminder that the Donmar is still capable of knocking the wind out of you, that it is in fact a space designed to do that. The Donmar should be scaring the fuck out of its cosy audience base, not pandering to them (they will come anyway, and they will book ALL the tickets before you get your shit together), and Privacy is a triumphant step in the right direction.