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Donmar Warehouse, London WC2
The title is a major issue of our time. And political playwright James Graham is well suited to write about it. Not only because he can clarify such complex subjects as political horse-trading in Parliament — the setting for his rather brilliant play This House — while finding the moving human stories within. But also because if he’s anything like the nameless “Writer” at the centre of his new work, he can’t be doing with the excesses of the digital age — the self-obsession of social media, the broadcasting of passing thoughts no matter how banal, and selfies.
His exploration into how a generation gave up its privacy to more malign than benign commerce and government is a playful and, at times, exhilarating bungee jump of a play. The bones of it are the interviews Graham conducted with a slew of public figures, campaigners, journalists and whistleblowers. There’s even a clip of Edward Snowden (though 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. His play is surely being written by someone now.
But rather than present the results in the sterile style of verbatim plays of the past, Graham entertainingly casts the Writer (Joshua McGuire) as the drama’s reluctant hero. There is even a director (Michelle Terry) who is rather similar to the play’s director Josie Rourke. The on-stage version encourages her playwright to create a virtual online version of himself and use it as a guinea pig.The results are sinister and revealing.
Audience members will guess they are in for an unconventional evening when, on booking a ticket, they are invited to help Graham explore his subject by allowing the show to establish their “digital footprint” and possibly use it during that evening’s performance. They will know for sure that this show is like no other when they are encouraged to keep their smartphones on.
The action takes place in front of designer Lucy Osborne’s digitally rendered wall of fingerprints, which helps to hammer 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.
Another experiment takes us through the steps on our smartphones that reveal how it stores a list of places we have visited complete with the street maps showing the exact location.
But Graham struggles to incorporate fascinating moments — which cause the audience to gasp as the scales collectively fall from their eyes — into a human drama. The Writer’s confidant here is the real-life author and psychoanalyst Josh Cohen (played by Paul Chahidi), to whom he confides anxieties about his emotional life. But it’s a layer of the play that feels tacked on in order to provide the evening with heart.
If Privacy was as candid as it purports to be, along with the scenes in which director and playwright discuss dramatising the conspiracy of British and American secret services, there would also be a couple of lines about discovering the play’s emotional pulse. Or possibly one admitting that there isn’t one to be found. That would have been really honest.
It works much better as a piece of investigative journalism, and possibly better still as a theatrical lecture, although Graham never quite nails why we should be so worried. Still, those inseparable from their smartphones may never look lovingly at the gadgets again.