Pros: Heaps of research, infusions of humour and an attempt to unpeel the intricacies of the digital age.
Cons: There are dozens of characters and a host of novel ideas – it’s very difficult to digest at times.
Privacy feels like one of those ultra current crash courses taught at an ex-polytechnic with a title like “Twitter and the loss of the self in modern Britain”. I mean this in the most positive sense. The play is extremely well researched. There is a four-page bibliography in the programme notes, and much of the dialogue is drawn verbatim from interviews with public figures like the Editor of The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, and the human rights lawyer, Shami Chakrabarti.
Privacy examines one of the profound questions of our time. In this digital age where more and more intimate information is being made available on the Internet, for the use of data trawlers like Google, and state bodies like the NSA, is it time for us to reclaim the private sphere? Or should the march towards informational nudity continue unabated, considering its importance for national security and other areas of public life, like healthcare?
The action follows a shy writer (Joshua McGuire), with intimacy problems and a serious case of technophobia, as he tries to hoover up as much information about digital surveillance, Google, Edward Snowden etc. for a play he plans to write. The research journey starts with a shrink, the old expert on intimacy and the self, but soon moves through a whirlwind of more newfangled specialists. From Guardian journalists involved in the Snowden leaks and lecturers on Information Technology, to politicians like Paddy Ashdown and a host of luminaries from the world of tech – it seems like everyone who matters makes an appearance.
The audience plays a big part too. This is not a watch and learn kind of play. Throughout you are encouraged to take selfies, surf the internet and discover the dark, intrusive underbelly of your smart phone. Such audience involvement is fitting for a play that implores people to consider their own relationship with technology.
At the nub of things is the question of what to do with all this data that is being collected. It’s so much, and it’s constantly being hoovered up: by our phones, by Google street view vans, by snooping governments, even by hospitals. Such “big data” brings great predictive power – Google can often foresee flu outbreaks before health authorities in America for example – but at the same time it can lead to ethical quagmires. If the “big data” suggests that a person has 0.001% chance of surviving should an ambulance be sent?
Despite the Orwellian overtones, Privacy is replete with comic moments, from Phillip Larkin speaking through the voice and body of William Hague, to a duo of tech savvy detectives who try to understand human romance through computer algorithms.
The music from Michael Bruce is utterly fitting – both sinister and fluffy – it captures something of the dark tinge behind the perky corporate image of companies like Facebook and Google. And the six-strong cast – Gunnar Cauthery, Paul Chahidi, Jonathan Coy, Joshua McGuire, Nina Sosanya and Michelle Terry – should be commended. They play dozens of characters, each with great gusto and grace.
At times the characters come so thick and fast, and with such machine gun rapidity, that it’s difficult to digest the importance of what they are saying. This is due to the vastness of the subject covered, and also its newness – nobody has been able to digest things yet, and certainly not this reviewer.
Apart from the fact that complete isolation and complete openness are dystopian, Privacy does not provide answers. Instead it urges us to think, debate and discuss. We live in the oldest unbroken democracy in the world, but we should not be complacent; new technologies may change this.
Director: Josie Rourke
Author: James Graham
Booking Until: 31st May 2014
Box Office: 0844 871 7624
Booking Link: http://www.donmarwarehouse.com/en/whats-on/donmar-warehouse/2014/privacy.aspx