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Wednesday, 23 April, 2014
Review by: 
Mark Shenton

One of the reasons we go to the theatre, of course, is to have our lives reflected back to us: to see ourselves through other people's eyes. But nowadays our every waking (and sleeping) moment is seemingly being recorded -- sometimes by us, as we tweet or post Facebook status updates about them, but even more so in the vast swathes of 'metadata' being collected about us at every possible interaction. Even booking a ticket to see this play will enable ATG, who run the ticketing system for the Donmar Warehouse, to add to their file of information on you.

James Graham, who previously wrote the brilliant This House that went behind the scenes of the parliament between 1974 and 1979, has now constructed this utterly compelling theatrical account that goes behind-the-scenes of our internet age to reveal the extent of the privacy that we've both consciously and unwittingly surrendered in the process. The play simultaneously terrified and gripped me; it wrestles with weighty issues that matter -- and may come to define us as well as haunt us.

The internet collects and collates your past as never before. And you have no control over its reach whatsoever. I know about some of this first-hand, and of course so may you (the internet also allows us to search for and find this stuff when it leaks out, whether by malicious or innocent design). So no wonder that Privacy struck a huge personal resonance for me. But it matters to all of us.

In the midst of a play that's amongst other things about the vast amounts of metadata being harvested about us -- and used as marketing tool and economic opportunity -- by everything from supermarket loyalty cards to Facebook, the playwright navigates a path through it partly by personalising it as his own story. His act of researching and writing this play is part of its story. The director Josie Rourke, who commissioned the play, is another character.

The result turns into a thriller about the internet age, centred of course around one of the most compelling spy dramas of all time - the spy turning out to be the state in the shape of the NSA in the US and Cheltenham's GCHQ whom Edward Snowden revealed are watching our every digital move. But do we have anything to worry about? "If you've nothing to hide, you've nothing to fear," foreign secretary William Hague famously declared. I wish we could be so sure.

But there are also other questions beyond security and our rights to privacy that are being breached. Our very sense of ourselves may be compromised, too, as we become merely the sum of the data being collected about us. It's a scary thought when the world knows -- or seems to know -- so much about us, intuiting our needs before we know what we actually want.

Graham's play is part verbatim drama -- drawn from some 60 interviews with politicians and journalists, digital specialists and academics -- and part interactive audience spectacle that draws us directly into its narrative and implicates us personally in it.

Just six exceptional actors flesh out an extraordinary parade of different characters, but we play ourselves, and that's the most affecting part of the evening. We all have a personal stake in this. The play may lose a bit of momentum towards the end, but that's partly just overload. It overwhelms us with so much information that it can be difficult to keep track of. It's a price worth paying for being challenged in this way; but is the price that the internet itself commands over our lives worth paying, too?


"The great surprise about Privacy is that despite its weighty subject matter Rourke’s production contrives to be consistently light on its feet, and is by turn funny, touching and downright scary."
Charles Spencer for The Telegraph

"It doesn't quite succeed. Graham has bitten off more than he can chew - or than we can digest."
Holly Williams for The Independent

"James Graham's new play under the direction of Josie Rourke is rich and adrenaline-fuelled but lacks a real intellectual tussle."
Michael Billington for The Guardian

"The impressive volume of research means that Privacy feels a little overstuffed. But this is a slick piece that sometimes shimmers with bravura and finds a vein of racy humour amid the Orwellian angst."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard

External links to full reviews from popular press
- Telegraph - Independent - Guardian

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