Privacy, Donmar Warehouse, London – review

Privacy: if you value yours, don’t consent to the jaunty request in the email that follows your ticket booking. For you would be agreeing, in this case, to be publicly data-mined before a live audience. To illustrate its themes of state and corporate surveillance, James Graham’s play includes an onstage cyber-techie who repeatedly demonstrates how, just by granting access to your mobile phone’s WiFi connection, you allow metadata (yes, this is what that means) to be collected showing where you’ve been and when, with whom, your purchasing history and, weirdly, even the likelihood that your parents may have divorced during your childhood.

It’s a big, baggy subject, and Graham has decided that the best way through it is with a kind of playful honesty. He has created an onstage caricature of himself, “the Writer” (played by Joshua McGuire), researching this very play and goaded by a domineering succubus of a Director (Michelle Terry, not impersonating actual director Josie Rourke). He interviews media, political and technological figures, and a psychoanalyst, to build up a collage to explain how we got to this point in the information age, why and what the consequences may be.

The weightiest part of the evening, which deals with Edward Snowden’s security leaks, is also the section which steers closest to straightforward verbatim theatre. Elsewhere, matters get jazzed up, with the cast of six self-parodically switching between characters to portray the Writer’s confusions and distractions (he has a surreal fixation with UK foreign secretary William Hague), and even jumping in on each other deliberately to create an inconclusive babble. Nuggets of trivia stud the proceedings, such as a sung jingle extolling Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, or the fact that iTunes’ standard terms-and-conditions agreement is about as long as The Tempest. At the other extreme, we see Snowden-sourced slides from actual NSA and GCHQ presentations on cyber-snooping.

The audience involvement aspect can get sticky: this is not the first show faced with a lose-lose choice between risking appreciable abuse of a spectator and copping out by sidestepping the problem. Nor is there any ending to speak of, since this is a path we are all still collectively negotiating. But the overall puckishness, and in particular the whizz-bang geekery, keep up the stimulation as well as the apprehension. Information, contradiction, digression, lack of conclusion . . . it’s just like the internet itself. Only without the porn.

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