Totally wired: Joshua McGuire in Privacy at the Donmar
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I want to tell you why James Graham’s play is so important – but I’m sworn to secrecy

Arriving at the Donmar to see Privacy, you feel an anarchic thrill at the instruction to switch your phone on.

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.

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Islam issue

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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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