Privacy** (Donmar Warehouse)

Posted: May 23, 2014 in Theatre

photo-62The first half of James Graham’s new “play” resembles nothing so much as a late afternoon session at a high-powered business conference – a bombardment of facts delivered in an ultra-slick presentation and served up with a lightness of touch designed to put the participants in the perfect mood for cocktails and a splendid dinner. We are told all the ways in which the internet is subverting our privacy every time we use Google, Facebook, Twitter, supermarket loyalty cards, etc, etc,  or even when we move from place to place with our mobile phones switched on. We are then shown how all this data can be stored, collated, used for corporate profit and become accessible to almost anyone to use in whatever way they wish. The presentation begins with a highly unusual announcement asking the audience to leave their internet devices switched on. At this point, I have to make a confession: whilst this production was in preparation, I attended a test run of its audience participation elements, with the result that I already knew a large chunk of its content beforehand. Therefore, I accept that it was for this reason that, whilst the usual audience of middle-aged theatregoers, bolstered on this occasion by young techno geeks, were gleefully playing with their smart phones, I sat and yawned. Oh, I also took a selfie (see above), e-mailed it to the Donmar and, childishly took delight in seeing it displayed with others on a screen at the back of the stage. I must also confess to a lifelong aversion to having problems presented without any suggestion as to possible solutions; so, if internet intrusions into our privacy are out of control and individual governments are powerless to legislate to tackle a global problem, what are we supposed to do? Opt out of the modern world and go to live on a desert island maybe? There is still plenty in the first half to cause alarm and consternation, although the impact is diminished somewhat when the device used to convey many of the most striking facts is later revealed to be a deceit. The overlong second half consists mostly of a scripted discussion centring on the Edward Snowdon affair and the potential misuse of private data by governments. The resemblance now is to an edition of Newsnight, albeit one that lacks balance and concision. Snowdon, Wikileaks and The Guardian are presented very simplistically as heroes, all Western governments as villains. At this point, a plot which has promised to surface from the beginning breaks through very briefly, as we see “the writer” (engagingly played by Joshua McGuire) becoming involved with the backlash from Snowdon whilst he undertakes his research. However, this glimpse of real drama turns out to be no more than just a glimmer. Of course, theatre should be able to educate and stimulate debate, but theatre offers opportunities to achieve such objectives through drama and the failure of his production to harness these opportunities and come up with an effective dramatic framework for its messages reeks of laziness. It is simply not good enough to do little more than replicate lectures or television programmes and, to illustrate this, we need look no further than the current West End dramatisation of 1984 which speaks a thousand times more powerfully about the threat of “Big Brother” than anything heard here. The performances by a cast of seven are all good and Josie Rourke’s direction is imaginative, indicating that, if and when her tenure at the Donmar comes to an end, she could find a lucrative career in devising presentations for large corporations. However, in the meantime, she may want to contemplate that rivals such as The Almeida, The Young Vic and Hampstead theatre have raised their games significantly in recent times and this quickly forgettable effort may do little to help the Donmar to regain lost ground. The presentation ends with a request, tongue-in-cheek I assume, not to reveal any of its “secrets”. I am afraid that I may have done so herein, but, if it is alright for Edward Snowdon to blab, why not me?

Performance date: 22 May 2014

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