The Blog

Theatre Review, Privacy: Frightening Impact of Mass Surveillance Laid Bare

is a really sharp, relevant play that looks at the frightening impact of mass surveillance. By addressing this vital issue head on,is unequivocally a play for our time.

Privacy is a really sharp, relevant play that looks at the frightening impact of mass surveillance. By addressing this vital issue head on, Privacy is unequivocally a play for our time.

Snowden's whistleblowing has transformed cultural discourse on this. We are most definitely in a mass surveillance state - this isn't just the stuff of Orwellian nightmares. And more than just being watched, your behaviour is being analysed to predict your actions and desires even before you've thought of them yourself.

In this dramatic, electrifying play, we are invited - no, demanded - to face up to the impact of this surveillance on our lives. The trail we leave on the internet now is more profound than what we think. And it's not just the obvious social media websites that we need to worry about.

Think you're ok because you don't do online shopping and you just shop instore? Think again. Think you're not affected because you just use secure wi-fi? Think again. Think Snapchat is ok because it just self-deletes? You most definitely need to think again.

To prepare this play, writer James Graham (the talent behind the 2013 hit at the National Theatre, This House) interviewed a whole raft of people from judges to politicians, from spies to kids, to gauge what this means for us.

Excerpts from those interviews have been weaved together into this verbatim interactive drama, which examines how we are being monitored today.

The audience is invited to leave their phones on and to walk the walk. Together, cast and audience investigate what it is about ourselves that is being gathered and analysed in remote data centres and spy agencies, even as we sleep, and how they are doing it.

In isolation, a lot of the info is not news (thanks to Snowden) but Privacy excels in demonstrating how, when all pulled together, we are now caught in a frightening web.

There's not much of an actual story to speak of in Privacy - more a fascinating dramatized lecture. Nevertheless I thought it was a really well-written, dynamically produced piece of theatre that held my attention.

The loose structure is that Writer (Joshua McGuire) is commissioned by Director (Michelle Terry) to write a play on surveillance. The two are supported by six other actors who play a myriad of characters - some we know (Alan Rusbridger, William Hague, Shami Chakrabarti), some we don't (anonymous whistle-blowers, teenagers sharing their lives on social media) - who bring to life Writer's path to completing his project.

The play is superbly directed by Josie Rourke, Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse. The production is dramatic, yes, but there are plenty of light-hearted moments and the play fizzes with energy.

The production design team (Lucy Osborne, Duncan McLean, Richard Howell, Christopher Shutt) has done an amazing job on this show too. It's bold and a perfect companion for the show. The back of the stage is covered with projections of human fingerprints and over it, search engines, google maps and social media trails are flashed up, dramatizing the all-seeing eye and ever-encroaching hand of the State - whether that be the governments or the corporates who provide them with our data.

The play is long at 2h45m (and perhaps might benefit from losing perhaps an extraneous 15 mins from the second half) but the deft combination of humour and audience interaction, as well as drama, keeps you attention.

For me personally, I wouldn't say that I had a great awakening from this production. Like I say, a lot of the stuff I already knew (like most definitely keeping location services on the iPhone switched off) but that wouldn't stop me from recommending this play. I think it is incredibly important that we all understand the repercussions of the new surveillance state.

However for me, I'm more interested in, where do we go from here? How are we, individually and as a society, going to respond to this? Will we rise up and demand change? Will we fight back? Or will we keep our heads down and self-censor our behaviour?

It's an interesting point that is only touched on fleetingly in the play via an excerpt from an interview with Annie Machon, a former MI5 operative.

Of course we don't know how we will react. The next generation will be the first to grow up where their past will follow them every day for the rest of their lives. What they post on Facebook when they're 16, what they send to mates on Snapchat when they're at school, will be written in permanent ink on internet sites (whether they think they've deleted it or not) till the day they die. They will never be able to escape past indiscretions or stupid mistakes they made as kids.

I fear that in response to mass surveillance we will adapt our behaviour to keep out of trouble. Our instinct will be to curb how we express ourselves, how we communicate to the world, how we (mis)represent ourselves. And I fear that because once the self-censorship kicks in, that's when the State will have already won.

Donmar Warehouse, London to May 31, 2014

Image Credits: Joshua Mcguire in Privacy at the Donmar Warehouse. Photo by Johan Persson