This age’s innovations in information – emails, texting, googling, tweeting – have transformed most personal and professional lives. Those working in stage and screen fiction face the specialised dilemma of how to dramatise these new connections. In cinema and TV, a shot of a screen within the screen has become wearingly common,
not only in movies such as The Social Network that take modern conversation as their subject but in romcoms and thrillers, which must adjust to how love and crime are increasingly conducted virtually. Among the pleasures of Sherlock is its elegant way of visualising texts and web searches by overlaying the phrases across the action.
For theatre, an analogue medium, the challenge is even greater. Premiered at the National Theatre in 1997, Patrick Marber’s Closer was one of the earliest attempts to represent these new means of speech. I remember the range of audience reaction, from delighted recognition to mystification, when a screen appeared above the stage, displaying conversations in a sex chat room.
Generally, however, digital interaction is the enemy of theatre. Many plays about infidelity – Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, Harold Pinter’s Betrayal and Peter Nichols’s Passion Play, for example – can only be revived as period pieces because they feature anachronistic scenes of adulterers having to use public call boxes. And, with most theatregoers carrying camera phones, a warning against photography has been added to the now traditional request for members of the audience to switch off their electronic devices.
So, arriving at the Donmar Warehouse to see James Graham’s new play, Privacy (which runs until 31 May), you feel an anarchic thrill, like pupils on a mufti day, at the public instruction to switch your phone on. A wi-fi provider called “Privacy” provides high-quality broadband, with which actors invite us to send data and images (one scene involves taking a “selfie”) that are displayed on a screen at the rear of the stage.
Privacy is a tough play to discuss because, with thematic neatness, it ends with a plea to keep secret most of what has taken place. It can be said, though, that Privacy represents theatre’s most sustained attempt to date to explore the implications of 24-hour contactability, online exhibitionism and an entire population of photographers, while also ingeniously incorporating them into the performance.
In structure it is a hybrid of two currently popular dramatic forms: the verbatim play (often based on courtroom transcripts or interviews with professional experts) and the theatrical lecture, like the Royal Court hit Ten Billion, in which Professor Stephen Emmott delivered his theories about population growth. Graham asks his cast to ventriloquise his interviews with media and academic observers (including Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty and several Guardian journalists) and to deliver illustrated speeches based on his research.
Many of the revelations are both funny and alarming. We are told that an algorithm can predict from Facebook exchanges whether couples will stay together and that records of online shopping show that, in the US, the item most commonly bought with a baseball bat is a ball, while, in the UK, the associated purchase is most likely to be a balaclava or knuckledusters. The implications of the latter – do, or should, the police monitor web retail sites? – are one of many issues about the uses of new media raised by the play, though it prefers to pose questions rather than debate or settle them. In another of the mini-lectures, those in the audience with the most fashionable mobile devices are warned that they are, in effect, wearing an electronic tag, recording every journey.
Another twist on the concept of privacy is that Graham and the director Josie Rourke are apparently represented in the play by characters called the Writer (Joshua McGuire) and the Director (Michelle Terry). The script seems to reveal candid information about their working relationship and private lives but it is possible that, like an online pseudonym, the disguises are intended to confuse. In that respect and others, we come out of the theatre not sure whether we really know what we think we know. In both content and execution, however, Privacy feels symptomatic of a wider theatrical reaction to the recent evolutions in communication.
A note in the Donmar programme that the play is “supported by XL Video” illustrates the blurring between stage and screen. At a time when a visit to the theatre is frequently indistinguishable from going to the cinema (both in plots and imagery), it will be intriguing to see the next show at the Almeida Theatre in London. Anne Washburn’s Mr Burns (5 June to 19 July), an off-Broadway hit, is set in a post-apocalyptic America in which all electronic culture (The Simpsons, pop music, the web) has disappeared and is known only through oral retellings. The provocative subtitle, A Post-Electric Play, declares her interest in pre-internet verbal and theatrical forms.
Most directors and writers, though, are taking their texts in the direction of, well, their texting. Although the majority of productions, unlike Privacy, will still warn audiences to turn their phones off, contemporary connectivity has turned theatre on to new ways of telling stories.