I love the Donmar Warehouse as a theatre venue as the small space allows for no bad seats and maximum intimacy; you’re never going to be more than 20 feet from the actors which is a stark contrast to sitting in the third circle of the majority of West End theatres. As fond as I am with the venue I hadn’t managed to see a play there that had really got to me; I’ve seen four or more plays there over the past through years, including the excellent Inadmissible Evidence, but none had given me that special feeling of having seen something new, thought-provoking, and all together special.
This changed a few nights ago when I went to see James Graham’s new play Privacy. A patchwork play consisting of scores of interviews with journalists, politicians, and those in the know is tied together by the presumably partly fictionalised story of the Writer (Joshua McGuire) researching the play under duress the Director (Michelle Terry). As the Writer discovers how we all share too much information through social media, just by having our phones turned on, and simply by what we Google so do the audience and an ensemble cast flit from character to character to deliver verbatim dialogue.
The staging is simple with a few items of furniture providing half a dozen locations, sometimes all at once, and the backdrop is a large screen onto which is projected the digital fingerprints of the audience/the contributors/the world in general. The screen was vital in keeping track of what characters were on stage at any one time as helpful documentary style captions accompanied their appearance and it was also utilised to demonstrate the various discoveries and revelations regarding privacy that the Writer had uncovered. Imagine a giant iPhone showing the recommended purchases on Amazon or the leaked NSA and GCHQ slides being presented to the audience as if in an online surveillance training seminar.
From Amazon to GCHQ Privacy certainly runs the gamut when it comes to organisations accessing our personal data. Some of the quirks of online advertising or how we present ourselves on Facebook are shown as an almost fun quirk. The idea that brands were getting to know us by snooping on our activity generated more surprised laughter than gasps of horror as we all sort of know it’s happening and don’t know whether we approve or not. I should confess here that when not writing here I have another job with the word “data” in the title so perhaps was more aware going in than most. It was when the play turned to the behaviour of government agencies that a chill set in amongst the enraptured audience.
For the most part Privacy has a light, lively air with what could be quite dry facts presented in amusing ways with huge diversity in delivery. Amid all this fun and frivolity is a message about the very real danger of having our privacy invaded. Once we were all suitably amused and relaxed the play pulled the rug from under us and suddenly we weren’t laughing any more. Without going into details the evening ended with me feeling complicit in the very thing we were earlier worrying might be happening to us.
With a strong cast lead by Joshua McGuire and Michelle Terry Privacy leans on its cast to make what could be an unpredictable show really work. The rest of the ensemble cast, Gunnar Cauthery, Jonathan Coy, Nina Sosanya, and (my personal highlight) Paul Chahidi, switch between characters with ease and distinction.
As a whole Privacy is an endless entertaining, informative, scary, and funny evening at the theatre that feels a little too real. It took days for me to stop telling everyone around me as much as I dared about the show and the moment I got home my Facebook profile underwent a minor overhaul. If Privacy lacks anything then it is a real plot beyond someone writing the play itself. There is a last-minute attempt at a narrative but it doesn’t quite come together and, arguably, it wasn’t really needed. The ideas explored within Privacy and the way they are presented are grand enough to stand on their own.
In summary Privacy is the play I have been waiting for and it is essential viewing for anyone whose ever wondered why they see the ads they do online or wondering how much the government, and advertisers, know about what they’ve been up to.
Privacy runs at the Donmar Warehouse until May 31st 2014 and a West End transfer is surely in its future. I urge you to go and see it in this intimate space; in a theatre so small that when the light go up you see the other half of the audience sitting across from you in a manner that feels suddenly violating after the evening’s events. The final batch of £10 Barclays Front Row tickets (your last chance really to see the show) go on sale at 10am tomorrow morning at the Donmar Website.
One last thing… If you are asked if you want to take part, go for it. I did and have no regrets. And remember, “If you have nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear”