The Theatreguide.London Review
Donmar Warehouse Theatre Spring 2014
In creating a play about modern invasions of privacy, James Graham borrows a device used by David Hare in several of his recent docudramas, inventing a character called The Author and having him, at the instigation of The Director, interview a lot of real people and assemble their comments into a montage, with the rest of the cast doubling and quadrupling roles to play them.
Among his revelations are the affirmation that the US and UK governments (and therefore probably a lot of others as well) are indeed collecting every email, tweet, Facebook posting and telephone conversation made by everyone everywhere, though we're assured that for the most part they don't actually read or listen to them, being more interested in 'meta-data' like who's talking to who and how often.
But the real invasion of our privacy, Graham's sources tell him, is in the information about ourselves we freely volunteer, not just through Facebook postings and the like, but by Google's keeping track of what sorts of things we look for and supermarket loyalty cards monitoring our purchase patterns.
What we ask Google for determines what ads they show us (including the one at the bottom of this page), and complex algorithms can let the supermarket guess with remarkable accuracy your age, income, race, sexuality, state of health and whether your parents are divorced. (Order a baseball bat from Amazon in America, and they'll suggest a glove or ball to go with it; order it in the UK and they'll assume you also want a balaclava.)
In short, the major threat to any concept of privacy is not government snooping, but the fact that the information we give away without even noticing it allows corporations to know us better than we know ourselves.
Along with the rapid-fire string of talking heads, as frequently generating a comic tone as an ominous one, Graham's script and Josie Rourke's production call for some audience involvement, generally limited to inviting us to check our phones to see what Google knows about us and to discover the hidden programs that continually monitor and record our calls and movements.
Joshua McGuire plays The Writer with perhaps a bit too much false naiveté, and Gunnar Cauthery, Paul Chahidi, Jonathan Coy, Nina Sosanya and Michelle Terry play everyone else with admirable dexterity.
The play does raise some moral questions about all its discoveries, and pauses occasionally for philosophical musings on the nature of privacy and identity or consideration of the psychological effects of knowing you are not being allowed many secrets (Supermarkets can guess, from tiny shifts in buying patterns, that a woman is pregnant even before she knows it).
But these are actually the weakest parts of the play, either interrupting its flow or giving the sense of being half-heartedly pasted in.
The real interest and entertainment content of Privacy lies in the frequently startling revelations, in the inventive staging involving video and CGI projections (with credit to several designers and an onstage technician), and in what you discover about yourself in just how much all this bothers you.
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