Donmar Warehouse Theatre

Privacy – a play about the digital era

James Graham’s new play Privacy tackles the huge and complex subject of our privacy in the digital age. Using a mixture of recent facts, including the extent to which companies collect and compile data on us; the incredible revelations by Edward Snowden; and some very simple real-time demonstrations of what modern technology and online searches can reveal about us, the play explores how governments and corporations collect and use our personal information, and what that means for our security, our identity and our future.

Initially the play poses an interesting question: what is privacy and what is secrecy. What do we want kept private and what do we want to be a secret. On the surface this seems quite simple, but as the play adeptly demonstrates it isn’t necessarily a secret that one wants to keep private and one assumes that it is an individual’s right to decide what is private and what is not. Or is it? If we decide to use a free service do we automatically have to give up that right? The play draws together a web of differing opinion, views and facts through interviews with journalists, politicians and analysts and asks the audience directly: how much do we give away when we share?

Privacy is razor sharp and very witty. It encourages audience participation and in so doing shows how unwittingly we are being exploited; a digital whiz-kid sits on stage conjuring up a range of facts and figures about people in the audience. I am sworn to secrecy about the evening’s (optional) participatory events and describing them here would certainly spoil the play for anyone who is fortunately to get tickets. That said during the evening’s events, and much to my own surprise, my recent travel was shared with everyone by the technical whiz-kid who coolly listed out the WiFi systems my phone had used that week, in Miami, Panama and Madrid, with unsettling speed and accuracy.

The play does a very fine job of summarising some of the major events and key concerns of the data mining phenomena in our modern world and although it highlights the need for greater debate it does little to explore what those questions should be or how the debate should be framed. None-the-less, it is great fun, very entertaining and thoroughly thought provoking. I also suspect many will find it quite eye-opening and learn a little more about their own connectivity and sharing habits.

Privacy is entering its final weeks at the Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden, London.

Notes and credits: Photography is by Johan Persson from the Donmar’s website.