james debate
james debate

Monday 30 June 2014

Directed by Josie Rourke
Written by James Graham
Starring Joshua McGuire, Gunnar Cauthery, Paul Chahidi, Jonathan Coy, Nina Sosanya, Michelle Terry
Theatre Donmar Warehouse

donmar theatre london privacy snowden assange guardian nsa

When The Ephemeric first heard about Privacy alarm bells went off. Artists are traditionally pretty left-wing to begin with, and here was a play about privacy in the post-Snowden era, featuring contributions from staff of the Guardian, and even dramatizing a large portion of the Guardian/Edward Snowden history.

That's not to say that we don't sympathize with their position to an extent, or that we consider ourselves anti left-wing, far from it. But the chances seemed good that this might be a politicized production designed to agitate and preach more than a genuinely compelling piece of theatre. Any contentious issue, when being described by one of the key parties, runs an obvious risk of bias, and here all the signs pointed to a complete political whitewash.

In addition "technology" as a subject generally has never transferred well into media. The fact is that most people really don't understand much about technology, and to a large extent that includes the playwrights. This makes it all too easy to craft a heavily exaggerated and stilted presentation of internet privacy issues, simplified into nice alarmist packages for your average layman to digest, but in reality far from representative of the real issues.

The Donmar's latest production attempts to take these concerns head on. Before curtains up, everyone is handed a sheet of card presented in the style of an aircraft safety brochure, which includes a wifi network name and password and instructions on how to connect. During the production people are invited to submit various information and photos to the network server, which are then worked into the production by the on-stage IT guru, permanently sat at a desk with a very impressive looking computer set-up.

It's all very clever and slickly produced, but the real brilliance comes when an audience member is called upon, and the on-stage tech guru then proceeds to pull all kinds of intimate information about them, and make eerily accurate inferences about many personal aspects of their life based on seemingly innocuous online activity.

Brilliant, because instead of simply telling us how scary the internet is, they go one better and actually show us. This expertly sidesteps any accusations of hyperbole by showing us an actual practical example. It's clever, funny and quite terrifying. In this first act the production accomplishes everything it set out to do and more, despite The Ephemeric's serious doubts.

But unfortunately all is not as it seems. At the end of the production all audience members are sworn to secrecy, but since a good few months have now passed (and since it is absolutely vital to any true review of this play) I feel obligated to inform at the very least that most of what has just transpired is completely fake.

Suffice it to say that none of the techno-wizardry that has seemingly been employed to such devastating effect has actually happened. It's fiction masquerading as reality explicitly to avoid accusation of bias, and the fact that none of it is real completely undermines the effect. At the end of the day, everything Privacy shows us is just fiction, and so all the pre-show concerns of hyperbole, politicization and, frankly, bullshit, still apply.

There's still much to be enjoyed here. Privacy is highly entertaining: funny, well produced and acted, and raises awareness of an important issue. But as is all too inevitable with such plays it runs the line of being a tool for political gamesmanship and revisionist history, rather than an actual sober consideration of a very technical subject. Privacy is good fun, but ultimately it is shown up just as scaremongering, a tool for the author's political views, and not to be taken too seriously.

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