James Graham’s ebullient new play ‘Privacy’ has more holes in it than the security settings on your smart phone. But only the most humourless authoritarian wouldn’t fall for this playfully chilling romp about privacy in the internet age.
Kind of like a David Hare play for people under the age of 150, the semi-verbatim ‘Privacy’ follows neurotic, social-media-shunning Graham stand-in The Writer (Joshua McGuire) as he’s mercilessly bullied by The Director (Michelle Terry, fabulously channelling the show’s notoriously blunt director Josie Rourke) into violating his own cherished privacy for the sake of this project. In the first half he conducts interviews and buffs up on facts and theories about the history of privacy and online identity: he goes to a shrink; he goes online dating; he gets a bit freaked out by how much Google knows about him.
In the second half, he heads down the rabbit hole – or at least, over to the offices of the Guardian, where he chats to the staff about the Snowden revelations and becomes increasingly paranoid about the likelihood that he himself is now being watched.
From a strict dramatic perspective there are many flaws with ‘Privacy’: the central Writer/Director ‘plot’ loses steam after a while, and the character of The Writer rings increasingly less true, problematising the second half’s more serious moments. It’s less a play, more a very exciting lecture on internet privacy. And that in itself is a mighty achievement – it imparts a veritable smorgasbord of horrifying revelations, and I adjusted the hell out of my iPhone’s secuity settings afterwards.
But the greatest achievement of ‘Privacy’ is more to do with tone than content. Bijou Covent Garden theatre the Donmar has been a lot of things in its 20-year-history, but ‘fun’ has rarely been one of them. ‘Privacy’, though, is an absolute blast. Directed by Rourke at a gleefully lightning pace, it makes a virtue of the usual failings of the oft-dry medium of verbatim theatre, with notes of farce and even panto as the six strong cast shift from character to character and indulge in some supremely tongue-in-cheek audience interaction.
The subject matter is very serious; Rourke and Graham’s response is to be judiciously silly; somehow it all works marvelously, a honeypot of theatrical titting about that leads to some truly disturbing revelations.