Review: James Graham’s Privacy at the Donmar Warehouse

Joshua Mcguire and (in the background) Jonathan Coy, Paul Chahidi, Gunnar Cauthery. Photo Johan Persson

Joshua Mcguire and (in the background) Jonathan Coy, Paul Chahidi, Gunnar Cauthery. Photo Johan Persson

Is it a play? Is it a comedy gig? Is it an interactive training session? Or maybe an existential thriller? Dazzling and confident, James Graham’s new play Privacy could very well sit under any of these banners but before you have time to consider a label, it has already moved on. Multitasking underlines most of modern life, why not the theatre? All in one, the tour is fast and furious: data, journalism, Mousetrap, Shakespeare, squeaky dolphin, NSA, Google earth, Tesco club cards, and that’s only scratching the surface. (By the corporate name-dropping, it’s evident the Donmar lawyers had to work overtime on this. So much so, they got to be in the play).

Which is not to say Privacy lacks substance. It all ties to a coherent – if unconventional – narrative where the writer is the protagonist, as much of the story as of his own existential and creative crisis. A crisis that both fuels the play and wouldn’t exist without it. (I said the format is unconventional but by no means unique: David Hare’s The Power of Yes has the same format with the fact-seeking writer the hero of the piece). Around the playwright, people, ideas and facts are fighting for space – literally, personal space is invaded several times – but in the end the chaos is molded into a personal perspective. Which is the art’s victory over data, isn’t it?

Several ideas take flight: Data gives accurate answers but often to the wrong questions. (“It’s wanting to know that makes us matter” says Tom Stoppard in Arcadia and data doesn’t want to know). Privacy breached festers into guilty secrets or other people’s falsehoods. A photograph holds a memory (first picture, last picture, is memory a type of metadata?), except this data is precious and fragile and easily corroded.

Play and production have the sparkliness of its theme. After all we wouldn’t play in the social media sandbox if it was boring.  Many ideas find representation in the format: the fourth wall is a window to the noise, the story holds secrets of its own. Still James Graham and director Josie Rourke keep the story on track in a joyfully chaotic way.

The whole cast (Gunnar Cauthery, Paul Chahidi, Jonathan Coy, Joshua McGuire, Nina Sosanya, Michelle Terry) is a pleasure, keeping the story racing with a magician’s dexterity and acrobatic skill. It often feels like it’s a football team keeping the ball in the air and that should be taken as high praise. Special mention to Joshua Mcguire who,  in the eye of the storm, is confident yet touchingly off balance.

Harry Davies. Photo Johan Persson

Harry Davies. Photo Johan Persson

In the end, one man looms large and that man isn’t even there. (Does anyone know where he is?) Edward Snowden appears in two brief clips but his presence is earth shattering in its quietness. It’s hard to guess what went through his mind before he took the decision to come forward and it’s impossible to dismiss a concern that comes with such personal cost. Maybe that’s his victory: personal cost outperforms all the corporate balance sheets in the world. Which is an awful lot of data.

P.S. Is this a theatrical first? It’s not every day that a theatre researcher finds her or his way in front of the audience but Harry Davies makes a magnificent stage debut on behalf of all the techie geeks everywhere. For sheer stamina (he never leaves the stage), geeky tricks, and – not forget – geeky good looks, he is the MVP of the night.

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