Crackerjack comic timing was the last thing anyone expected from an alarming play about 21st-century concerns over data, secrecy and power. But it’s all over James Graham’s dazzler “Privacy.” Josie Rourke’s superbly paced Donmar Warehouse production and Graham’s dancing wit keep audiences riveted to a provocative exploration of everyday technology that we take for granted. Theirs is a killer combo, creating a theatrically sophisticated and unusually inclusive approach to deeply researched, sharply structured material that’s as fascinating as it is unnerving.
More game-playing examination than traditional drama, the show’s delightful self-knowledge is clear from the droll opening which, via a spoof in-flight safety video, instructs audiences to keep their phones on, albeit in silent mode. That’s because the six-strong cast work live with information and data that audience members cheerfully supply. At one point, we’re instructed how to take the ideal selfie and then encouraged to e-mail it to the production. Those images are then splashed over Lucy Osborne’s crisp, white back-wall screen made up of row upon row of individual thumbprints. It’s an amusing, savvy illustration of how public we’re making our private selves.
Through the immensely entertaining first half, Graham handles dramatic and technological exposition with astonishing flair. Using audience members’ addresses (given when tickets are booked via credit card), profiles are drawn up in front of our eyes — there’s an onstage researcher processing data on a laptop throughout — and information is fleetly fed to us about how we operate in a technologically driven world via smartphones, Apple, Google, apps, Twitter, and YouTube. The demonstration of the amount of information that can be built up produces audible gasps, not least in an audacious piece of audience participation that’s worth the price of admission.
“Privacy,” however, is not just a disquisition upon facts. Four multi-tasking cast members race between roles playing 37 named figures in the worlds of technology, law and politics that Graham has interviewed, plus several others who have spoken anonymously. All this is cunningly interleaved via an amiable yet increasingly troubled Joshua McGuire as Graham’s alter-ego The Writer. He spars with perky yet piercing Michelle Terry as The Director and benign yet quietly insistent Paul Chahidi (late of the Globe’s Broadway “Twelfth Night”), as the psychiatrist he starts visiting who patiently advises as McGuire’s Writer examines the differences between personal revelation to a clinician and public exposure via Facebook and the like.
In other words, this is verbatim theater with a (considerable) difference. Out goes the form’s often bogus pieties surrounding supposedly unaltered transcription, and in comes Graham’s fictional editorial voice, a choice that jumpstarts the material. That’s particularly evident in the second half with the advent of Edward Snowden’s revelations. And with surveillance, secrecy and political power now on the agenda, everything moves up a gear in the much darker second half.
Self-conscious though much of this appears in the telling, it plays with assured ease. And Rourke’s expert juggling of all the levels adds perspective and depth to the play’s central ideas: the seemingly innocuous but actually dangerous blurring between private and public exposure and the differences between secrecy and privacy.
Graham is far too smart to posit easy answers but the questions he asks are startlingly acute and urgent. Charting his research, the play grows increasingly disturbing as it unravels the personal implications resulting from his investigations and the flimsy legal controls over what data and meta-data mining can do. By no means is all of this entirely new, but being presented with so lucid an explanation of the entire picture is remarkable. His vision is not exactly dystopic, but his revelation of how governments and commerce have moved surreptitiously from the realm of spy-fiction into everyday intrusion is shocking.
Many an earnest docudrama is likely to be made about the Snowden leak, not least because of the recent Pulitzer prizes awarded to the Washington Post and the Guardian. (The editor and leading journalist of the latter appear in the play.) One of the many strengths of “Privacy” is that it has absolutely none of the earnest worthiness one might expect from such a project.
Its success and profile mean that TV and film interest is likely to be high, but the real triumph of “Privacy” is Graham’s grip on its unique and complete theatricality. Everything about its performance is predicated upon its live audience members, who ricochet between knowing laughter and rapt attention.