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Theatre Review (Yes, Really): ‘Privacy’ at the Donmar Warehouse

Vincent Flood  25 April, 2014

★  While online privacy concerns were once the preserve of chin-stroking geeks, the rise of social media and the Snowden leaks and have pushed the privacy issue into the mainstream. The most recent manifestation of that shift is ‘Privacy’, a frenetically paced play by James Graham that just started its run at the Donmar Warehouse in London.

Privacy is a highly entertaining and often hilarious play that crams in almost every privacy issue imaginable, covering everything from Prism and loyalty cards, right through to social media and remarketing (the damage that trigger-happy retargeters have wrought on our industry knows no bounds). The small cast play 37 characters in back-to-back sketches featuring everyone from Edward Snowden to Clive Humby, founder of Dunnhumby and inventor of the Tesco Clubcard.

Privacy at the Donmar Warehouse

It’s an unashamedly political play and doesn’t pretend to be anything else, which would be fine were it not for the fact you sometimes get the sense that inconvenient truths – like the fact that the use of cookies is now regulated and people can opt out if they want to – are overlooked.

Then the various Guardian journalists are presented as the privacy heroes, which is fair enough considering their Pulitzer prize-winning journalism on the Snowden leaks, but there’s no mention of the fact that the same journalists are paid – in part at least – with money derived from the same data-driven advertising that is castigated earlier in the play. Without that revenue, the reality is that much of that journalism simply wouldn’t take place.

But, putting these relatively minor gripes aside, it’s still an often hilarious and highly imaginative play, aided in part by the inventive approach to audience participation, which is frequently used to ram home the point that we’re often sharing data online without even realising we’re doing it. Even the most trusting of data-sharers will leave with at least a little bit of James Graham’s Orwellian angst.

While one criticism that has been levelled at the play is that it tries to cover too many aspects of the data debate, it’s hard to imagine how Graham could have avoided doing so. Taken in isolation, the reality is that data collection is often a relatively harmless activity. It’s only when you start to stitch together various data sources that you cross over into territory where people start to perceive it as intrusive. And that’s what makes Privacy the play and privacy the issue so fascinating — as a society we can’t seem to agree on where the line is between data collection and intrusion.

Ultimately, the privacy issue is about trust. Can our governments and tech companies be trusted to consistently act in the public interest, or is the fact they have so much information about our lives something that is open to abuse? And if we can trust them with that data today, how can we be sure we’ll be able to trust the government/regime/dictator who might be in power ten years from now? Graham doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, but Privacy looks set to add fuel to a debate that is only really just beginning.

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