You’ll probably see an ad for The Haystack on Facebook after reading this review. What once felt dystopian has now become an accepted and unremarkable aspect of everyday life: if you read about something, or look it up in passing, you’ll immediately see it served back to you everywhere in the form of an advert. We assume low-level surveillance more or less constantly: everyone I know puts a sticker over their laptop camera, we all make jokes about someone listening in when we get promotional emails about something we’ve only talked about.
This is the world of Al Blyth’s The Haystack, a title that’s eventually revealed to refer to the idea of preemptively catching terrorists based on their online activities: like finding a needle in the proverbial. The haystack itself is the rest of us, constantly monitored without our knowledge in search of that needle. It’s not clear from Blyth’s briskly-plotted political drama how shocked he expects the audience to be about this well-known information. But either way, it makes a compelling background for the story of an antisocial government-employed tech whiz who’s pulled into a failed operation to track down the source of government leaks.
The Haystack feels like it would exist equally comfortably as a high-budget Hollywood thriller, though director Roxana Silbert makes the scenes flow at times balletically together, flashes of theatricality within often cinematic montages, a punchy fluidity enabled by Tom Piper’s stark set, shifting white backdrops that serve as sterile government walls or backgrounds to project busy computer screens. Text messages pop up, Sherlock-esque, floating on the wall above the texter’s head. Projected pixels and bursts of light cascade down the walls as two mates play video games, the contents of screens taking over their whole world.
I waited for The Haystack to make something of its liveness—to make something of the first act’s thread of far-from-radical suggestion that the internet and social media have made us all sadder, lonelier—as they evidently have our protagonist, Neil. Surely this was why this was a play and not a film: to say something about the need to be in the same space as people in order to know them. At least, the first act seemed to promise that kind of conclusion.
The person Neil hopes to know is Cora, who he secretly abuses his equipment to constantly surveil for a period of time that is intentionally left rather vague, but seems to be weeks, if not months. Because he thinks she’s hot. Because he feels a connection to her spiraling loneliness. Because he feels responsible for her unemployment and depression as a result of the ultimately failed operation that led to him surveilling her in the first place. Because he can. Neil’s selfish voyeurism and manipulation of Cora, leading to dating her in real life on the strength of the knowledge he gained about her through spying, provides a rich and messy premise for interrogating male entitlement and the lure of the internet, the way it makes us feel we know people when often, we don’t. There’s one chilling and lovely bit of staging where Cora and Neil watch a movie together—which is to say, she watches a movie on her laptop, while Neil watches what she’s watching, their body language mirrored, together but both completely alone.
But the second act veers sharply away from this line of thinking, and the play transforms from intimate personal drama with the trappings of politics to a political drama with a pretty girl as the requisite motivational set-dressing for the male lead.
There’s something sweetly brittle in the awkwardness of Oliver Johnstone’s Neil. It’s easy to believe that he’s the type of guy who not-so-inadvertently insults girls he tries to flirt with, easy to believe that he believes he’s actually connecting to Cora and has a right to try. But Johnstone imbues him with such softness, and Blyth’s script with so many opportunities to see him in his true element (even if he’s turning his talent to distinctly unpalatable uses), Neil avoids the lonely nerd stereotype.
But none of the characters outside of Neil feel entirely real. The two authority figures in the story, an editor and Neil’s boss, are both women, which would feel more progressive if they weren’t just brash blonde exposition machines, though Sarah Woodward and Lucy Black hit the expected beats perfectly: the no-nonsense editor, the secretive high-ranking agent, both with a soft spot for their talented but wayward employees. Neil’s best friend and co-worker Zef and even—or maybe especially—Cora likewise feel less like people than like reaction devices who exist only when and as Neil needs them to. The blaze of Cora’s very millennial downward spiral, though given fidgety, frantic life by Rona Morison, feels resolutely distant, never fully mined. This could be a reflection of Neil’s mechanized worldview, often discussing human interaction in terms of cheat codes and algorithms, but if that’s the intention behind the other characters’ flatness, it doesn’t go far enough to feel convincing.
As the story shifts away from Neil’s actions and towards a bigger question about government overreach and surveillance, the human cost of anyone’s actions gets lost. Neil is almost held to account for his treatment of Cora, sort of, but the emergence of The Government as the real villain overshadows any sense of unpacking what he’s done or requiring either the audience or the character to grapple with his actions. Sure, Neil was kind of bad, but The Government is worse. This is never clearer than in the play’s final lines, a metaphor comparing the government’s surveillance of Britain to Neil’s of Cora, both in an attempt to protect ‘a beautiful thing.’ Cora is a thing, repeatedly referred to in this brief speech as ‘it.’
None of this is really a surprise for the genre in question: in Hollywood political thrillers, character is never really the point. Which leaves The Haystack a creditable stage version of an understandably popular film genre: snappy, engaging, and in the end a little shallow.
The Haystack is on at Hampstead Theatre till 7th March. More info here.