James Graham is an excellent writer who showed his gift for creating drama from unpromising material with This House, which revisited the 1970s House of Commons. His new play at the Donmar explores privacy, and is an ambitious hybrid, which owes a lot to the tradition of verbatim theatre.
While it is always lively, often amusing and illuminates the issues of privacy and surveillance through clever stage design and some audience interactivity, I found it rather unsatisfying as theatre. It kept my attention on an intellectual level, but no more than that.
The most interesting examples of verbatim theatre I can remember seeing were David Hare's The Permanent Way, staged by Max Stafford-Clark in the aftermath of 1990S rail privatisation and a series of fatal crashes, and London Road, a musical about community reaction to the murders of prostitutes in Ipswich, directed by Rufus Norris.
Both of these productions at the National Theatre managed to transcend the quasi-journalistic format of actors repeating lines originally spoken into a tape recorder by real people, by breaching the fourth wall and involving the audience. Director Josie Rourke is trying to do the same thing with this production, but it doesn't work -- at least not for me.
Rourke and Graham turn the usual theatre protocol on its head by encouraging the audience to get their smartphones out and switch them on, then using the data to extract information to be projected on a giant screen. It's scary stuff, and enough to persuade anyone to throw their smartphone straight into the Thames. I don't own a smartphone, in part because of privacy and security worries, so this interactive part of the show didn't mean so much to me.
I enjoyed seeing a former lobby journalist colleague and friend portrayed on stage -- the Guardian's Ewen Macaskill, the man who interviewed Edward Snowden. In fact the section of the play dealing with Snowden was the most interesting one.
To move the play beyond a journalistic documentary and give it some human interest, Graham puts himself on stage as The Writer, accompanied by Rourke as The Director. Joshua McGuire and Michelle Terry are excellent in these two roles, but I don't think the narrative of the writer's journey and his partnership with the director have much to offer in the way of drama. Nor do the writer's exchanges with a psychoanalyst, played by the equally excellent Paul Chahidi. It all feels a bit contrived, and despite some excellent jokes and one or two surprises, none of it stirs the emotions.
That's not because I'm not concerned about the issues -- quite the opposite. I've been wondering for some time why I keep seeing ads for 'Made in 1949' teeshirts on Facebook when I've never told them my year of birth. I have the simplest kind of mobile phone, which just sends texts and makes calls; I don't do online banking for security reasons; I have an anonymous Oyster card which I top up with cash because I don't want my journeys across London to be tracked; and I don't believe the government's mantra that if I have nothing to hide, I have nothing to fear. Mass government surveillance of the kind revealed by Snowden and supported by most of the British press is a truly frightening phenomenon for all of us, far more sinister than commercial use of our data by Amazon, Facebook and Tesco. I'm also worried about the drift away from the privacy of the secret ballot, made possible by postal voting, and even more concerned about the fact that nobody, least of all the Electoral Commission, seems to see it as a problem.
I would in fact have preferred a more polemical play with a stronger narrative that placed its protagonists in some real jeopardy, and with a stronger satirical edge. Meanwhile, I do hope that the interactive use of smartphones in theatres doesn't become a fashionable habit with directors.