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Are you reading this on a smartphone? It’s likely that you are – over half of all adults in the UK now own one, and they are used for almost a third of all webpage traffic. Our society is rapidly changing: over 30% of children aged 5-15 own a smartphone, and teenagers spend over a day per week online. We live in a world of constant connectivity in which the internet fills our downtime, a world in which the rise of social media encourages us to share all the intimate – and mundane – details of our lives. The delicate balance between the human urge to engage with others and our need for solitude has perhaps never been more at risk. Yet how often do we stop and think about the consequences of our online activity? This is what James Graham (writer of the National Theatre’s hit play This House) attempts to do in his new play, Privacy.
It’s debatable to what extent Privacy is a play. It’s an intriguing and at times frustrating blend of meta-theatre, documentary theatre and verbatim theatre, with a bit of audience participation thrown in for “fun”. It shouldn’t really work, and I’m not quite convinced that it does: there’s no real plot or story that we can follow or get stuck into, it often feels too didactic and at times wears the weight of Graham’s research quite heavily. Yet, apart from a noticeable dip in momentum at the start of the second half, Privacy is so exhilarating, so topical and so terrifying in its revelations about what we are giving away every time we log on to the internet that it’s difficult not to be swept away by it.
Josie Rourke’s direction is very clever – slick and swift, making us work hard to keep up – and the acting is first-rate, even though the cast of six assume over thirty roles, many of which are the real people Graham interviewed, ranging from Shami Chakrabarti to William Hague and Alan Rusbridger. Lucy Osbourne’s design of a back wall made of fingerprints is a knowing nod to an earlier form of identification, emphasising how much society has changed; we are now leaving digital footprints behind us. The same wall also doubles up as a screen for a series of technological displays and infographics that demonstrate exactly what happens when, for example, you connect to a new WiFi network.
The very loose central “plot” around which Privacy is constructed is Graham’s own commission from director Josie Rourke, who has asked him to investigate what happens when the internet turns something private into something secret. “Get to the heart of that,” she urges him, and this is the catalyst for the disturbing revelations that follow, and the myriad questions Privacy raises in its two-hour running time. We follow “The Writer” (Joshua McGuire) as he sets up email and various social media accounts (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram), and interviews journalists, politicians, security personnel, intelligence officers and defenders of civil liberties in his attempt to write the play Rourke demands. As The Writer begins to realise – with increasing fear – just how much information about himself he readily gives away online, even by doing very little, so do we. This information is stored and used to build up a picture of an individual, not only by the government and MI6 but also by – for example – Tesco Clubcard, who can apparently predict a woman is pregnant before she even knows herself. This raises worrying questions about the level of security in this country and whether we ought to passively accept that the price we pay for ‘safety’ is the erosion of our private lives through the information we willingly share.
But, as Graham’s research takes him from Facebook to the Houses of Parliament, from the Guardian offices to GCHQ, he adds more and more issues and questions, contributing to the sense that there are four or five possible plays here, and that a more thorough look at just one of the aspects of the idea of privacy in the modern world might have been more successful. Of course, as “The Director” comments at one point during the play, the purpose of art is to ask questions of consequences; art doesn’t have to provide answers. Privacy certainly encourages the audience to think, to debate, to discuss, to ask questions of themselves and of society – and probably to radically alter the security settings on all their electronic devices – but the sheer volume of information presented in Privacy can feel overwhelming. That’s not to say this isn’t intentional, a knowing comment on the unimaginable, almost unquantifiable amount of data we willingly share about ourselves on a daily basis, but there were some really fascinating questions that I wished could have been explored in more detail.
Instead, Graham seemed content to skate over these, returning in more detail in the second half to the idea of the surveillance state and the relationship between governments, corporations and citizens. These questions have been explored before, and better, and it is in the second half of Privacy where Graham seems least in command of his material, weighed down by his use of verbatim theatre. Furthermore, his references to Snowden feel like they have been shoehorned in simply because you can’t have a play about privacy and security without referencing one of the 20th century’s most infamous whistleblowers. As a result, much of the second half is dry and dull, a series of Guardian journalists discussing how they approached such an important journalistic scoop.
Far more interesting are the more philosophical and existential questions Graham raises at the start of the play and again all too briefly at the end, concerning whether our use of the internet affects who we are. As the internet continues to pervade every aspect of our lives, so our relationship with it develops, becoming more and more intimate, until it starts influencing our moods, our feelings and even our choices. Are we defined by the choices we make? Given that the vast majority of the services we use on the internet are provided for free – social media, apps, search engines, online shopping – we ourselves become the product, putting up our digital footprint for sale. These companies and programmes try to predict what we want in the future based on our internet history; if we are the product of our decisions, but a Google algorithm leads us to make those very choices, does that mean our data trail releases us from any responsibility? What does this make us? If our use of the internet continues to develop apace and it is leading only to an illusion of choice, can we, asks The Writer, ever really change?
Privacy continues at the Donmar Warehouse until May 31. See the website for more information.