Hampstead Theatre January-March 2020
Playwright Al Blyth
tries to squeeze a lot into his first full-length play. Remarkably,
he almost succeeds, but eventually it just bursts at the seams and
A pair of computer nerds
work for the government, tracking
down security breaches. They trace a couple of leaks to a woman
journalist and put her under surveillance.
One of the nerds becomes
fascinated by her and starts cyber-watching her on his own,
eventually falling for her and using what he knows about her to meet
her and act like her dream man.
So we have a blend here
of a few
familiar plots, the obsessed stalker, the cop who falls for the
suspect and the I-read-your-diary rom-com. And the play uneasily
switches back and forth among them, so we're not always sure whether
the guy is lovable, dangerous or just creepy.
At the same time that
we're trying to sort out how we feel about what's going on, the play
repeatedly backs away from the personal story to try to decide how it
feels about modern-day surveillance.
While the case is
for the need for information, what Blyth reports is that things are
far worse than most paranoiacs can imagine. Not only does the
government have the ability to listen to all phone calls and read all
e-mails, but it can follow all Google searches, record all
keystrokes, outwit any attempts at encryption and use our own cameras
to watch us.
And it does, because one
thing it can't do is spot the
potential terrorists and focus on them, so it has to watch everyone.
(The title alludes to the idea that to find the hidden needle you
have to look through the entire haystack.)
The problem with The
Haystack as a play is that the story of the obsessed nerd and the
report on the extent of cyber-surveillance keep bumping into each
other as they fight for our attention.
When the personal drama
reaches an emotional high point it is inevitably interrupted by a
scene involving the computer guy's boss or colleague in which we
learn even more about privacy intrusions. And when we work to absorb
that new revelation our attention is diverted back to the lovers.
Sometimes this dramatic
tension can be very effective, as in a
sequence in which the hero essentially carries on two conversations
at once, reassuring the girl that she's safe with him while
collaborating with his buddy on how to invade privacy more
But too often, and
increasingly toward the end, the play
keeps threatening to spin out of control and break apart.
It is very
much to the credit of the playwright and director Roxana Silbert that
things hang together as long as they do, and that we always know
where we are even when we are jumping between topics and levels.
Oliver Johnstone as the boy, Rona Morison as the girl and Enyi Okoronkwo as the fellow nerd lead a strong cast, some of them appearing only in the production's extensive use of projections and video effects.
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Review - The Haystack - Hampstead Theatre 2020