Privacy, Public Theater, New York — overview

Daniel Radcliffe, centre, in 'Privacy'. Photo: Joan Marcus©Joan Marcus

Daniel Radcliffe, centre, in ‘Privacy’. Photo: Joan Marcus

Intervals are typically about promoting drinks. In James Graham’s play Privacy, initially staged at London’s Donmar Warehouse in 2014 and co-designed by director Josie Rourke, those 15 minutes of hastily gulped wine and beer also let the individuals backstage to spy on the audience.

What begins out as a rather unfocused piece about a lately jilted author trying to overcome writer’s block (Daniel Radcliffe in Woody Allenish mode) by interviewing a slew of academics and tech personalities thus veers towards an exploration of the far more sinister implications of our collective telephone and internet addiction. Having followed guidelines to email selfies to the theatre for the duration of the initial half, audience members are summoned onstage and confronted with vaguely embarrassing pieces of personal information (a favourite term here) that are floating about online.

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Initially played for laughs, this device develops into a complete-blown interrogation as ever a lot more intimate information are disclosed. The point is to illustrate Edward Snowden’s critique of government surveillance and the whistleblower himself duly pops up in a video recording presumably created in a Russian secret service guesthouse (an inconvenient irony that goes unremarked here).

We are, in addition, in the end sworn to secrecy as to the course that interrogation takes. Suffice it to say Privacy’s hypothetical denouement turns out to be so far-fetched that I felt much less convinced by Snowden’s case at the finish of the play than I had been beforehand. The government could use the electronic data it harvests to ruin our lives. But Privacy gives no real evidence that such a dystopian outcome is even remotely most likely in a democratic technique with appropriate checks and balances. Documentary theatre performs best when grounded in hard facts. By resorting to overheated speculation, Graham weakens the argument at the heart of his play, which packs much less of a punch than Citizenfour , Laura Poitras’s chillingly understated fly-on-the-wall documentary about Snowden.

Much more telling right here is the demonstration of how we gleefully connive like selfie-snapping lemmings in violations of our personal privacy, described early on as a type of religion. On this evidence, not many think in it.

To August 14, publictheater.org

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Section: Arts