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

Marvel
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Smart and politically alert, Black Panther will inspire a generation of film students

Plus, Wakanda has a border control system to make Theresa May swoon. 

Before I went to see Black Panther, I had no idea whether or not it would be any good. That might sound strange, given the positive buzz around it, but I did have a nagging suspicion that “being nice about the first black-led Marvel film” might have got mixed up with “parading my anti-racist credentials on social media”.

Well, that suspicion was an unworthy one. Black Panther is not just smart and politically aware for a superhero film – it’s smart and politically aware, full stop. Its central conflict springs from its alternate-reality vision of Africa: specifically, a country called Wakanda, home of the world’s only reserves of “vibranium”. This has allowed Wakanda to become more technologically advanced than the West – “it’s as easy as riding a hoverbike”, the country’s chief scientist says to a bemused American at one point – and it has not only never been colonised, but never been mapped. It hides its lush plains and skyscrapers inside a holographic mountain.

A rare, mystical natural resource might be a staple of fantasy films (think of Avatar’s Ronsealishly named unobtainium), but putting it in the middle of Africa gives the film both a historical resonance – untold misery was caused by the 19th century efforts of European powers to secure the continent’s mineral wealth – and a contemporary one. It’s impossible to make a smartphone without rare earth metals, and some of the places where these are found, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, suffer from what economists call a “resource curse”. Without strong governments and infrastructure, the vast wealth obtainable by mining creates opportunities for corruption, and funds militias and civil wars.

Rare resources also attract vultures: which is exactly what Wakanda’s rulers fear. If they share the source of their power,  and give away their only advantage over the West, how will they be treated? A glance at their continental neighbours would be anything but reassuring.

That question – could you honestly advise Wakanda to share its vibranium with the world? – is interesting enough. But the film’s politics go even deeper, into uncomfortable questions about culture and immigration. All Wakandans have a tattoo on their inner lips, which grants them access to the kingdom: it’s a border control system that would make Theresa May swoon.

Early in the film, King T’Challa (whose alter ego is the superhero Black Panther) discusses with one of his closest advisers whether or not they have a duty to their fellow Africans, particularly refugees. W’Kabi (played by 28-year-old British actor Daniel Kaluuya) offers an argument we are more used to hearing from Trump voters in those worthy American newspaper profiles of flyover states: won’t mass migration mean the end of our unique culture? Putting that sentiment in the mouth of someone from an uncolonised African country is deeply provocative, helping audiences scale what the anthropologist Arlie Russell Hoschchild calls an “empathy wall”. The film ultimately rejects W’Kabi’s position, but it does give it space to be heard.

There’s another layer of sophistication to the political allegory here. The film’s true villain is not the white South African arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (although the parents who gave him that name really only have themselves to blame that he turned to crime and prosthetic augmentation). It’s the deeply conflicted figure of Killmonger, King T’Challa’s first cousin.

 Killmonger (Michael B Jordan) fights T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman). Photo: Marvel.

The king’s father killed his own brother back in 1992 after discovering that he had arranged the theft of a cache of vibranium. The plan was to distribute it to black people around the world, so they could rise up against their (white) oppressors. “I think the best villains are ones that have a point of view that’s relatable and that you can empathise with,” screenwriter Joe Robert Cole said in a recent interview. “Sometimes it’s how far you take things that makes you a villain, and not necessarily the perspective.”

Again, the film gives Killmonger’s argument space to breathe. Raised by a single mother in America, when his dead father asks him in a vision why he has no tears for him, he says that life is cheap here, meaning: black life. The Wakandans are not pacifists – Black Panther can, and will, kill people with his claws – but Killmonger experiences violence as chaotic, meaningless and random. He has been brutalised by the reality of life as a black man in America, and later as a soldier in America’s foreign wars. How radical is that: a $200m Hollywood film where the villain is a personification of America’s domestic and foreign policy?

There is so much more richness in the movie that (I hope) it will inspire a generation of film students. How should we react to a king and his subjects making monkey noises at someone in an ethnic minority, trying to intimidate him into silence? (In this case Martin Freeman’s white CIA agent.) How do black Africans feel about the film’s essentially American perspective, implying a commonality between black citizens in countries with such huge disparities in average income? How do the kind of internet writers who worry about “cultural appropriation” feel about a cast which includes black British, West Indian, Zimbabwean-American and German actors doing Xhosa accents? (“The implicit statement in both the film’s themes and its casting is that there is a connection, however vexed, tenuous, and complicated, among the continent’s scattered descendants,” noted Jelani Cobb in the New Yorker.)

As a white British viewer, the most uncomfortable moment for me was when Killmonger promises that the “sun will never set” on the new Wakandan empire. It reminded me of the developed world’s anxious hope for the future: that the rising nations of the world will treat us better in their pomp than we treated them in ours.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia