No matter how deeply we may think we’ve absorbed the lessons of Edward Snowden, it’s still possible to be shocked by the extent to which our digital devices catalog our lives. Want to order a pizza or locate a friend? Planning on attending a protest? Your smartphone will help you — and gleefully log the metadata for later.
Such a shock is what Privacy attempts to administer. Currently at the Public, the high-tech, interactive drama, by playwright James Graham and director Josie Rourke, is part romantic comedy, part performance lecture: exploring the endangerment of intimacy and solitude in a digital age, and contemplating the devil’s pact that we ignore daily, as we “like,” “share,” and drop pins.
Daniel Radcliffe stars as The Writer, a neurotic English type, bruised from a recent breakup that was precipitated by his introversion and reluctance to “share.” He embarks on a pilgrimage of self-discovery, seeking to understand his own need for privacy — and to interview experts who can help him come to terms with the nature of privacy in our times. (This material, he announces, will provide fodder for a new play, presumably the one we’re watching.) The Writer flies to New York for research, and the play morphs into a kind of docudrama in the key of TED Talk. Experts on the subject of surveillance and privacy, from the heads of Google and OkCupid to the director of the FBI — all efficiently portrayed by the excellent ensemble — appear, offer pithy remarks, and vanish. A “researcher” (Harry Davies) sits upstage, glued to a MacBook throughout.
Meanwhile, The Writer pines for his ex, so his chorus of “experts” suggests he explore a different relationship: with us, his audience. Indeed, we are the co-stars of Privacy, our smartphones the most important props. Spectators are instructed to leave phones on, log on to a wireless network, and participate in various explorations, ostensibly of The Writer’s life, but really of our own. We snap selfies and explore our phones’ “Frequent Locations” lists, which track our travels like inadvertent diaries. We receive funny, sobering demonstrations of just how much personal information our phones broadcast without our knowledge.
Interactive performance, using spectators’ smartphones and personal data, has been on the rise in the last few years (a recent piece by theatermakers Chris Kondek and Christiane Kühl likewise hacked audiences’ phones; European companies like Rimini Protokoll, Blast Theory, and Gob Squad have long been at the forefront of such practices). Privacy manages to be both hugely entertaining and — by comparison to other work along these themes — somewhat glib. It’s impossible to tune out from the event Graham and Rourke have orchestrated: Each fresh revelation of our private data works like a magic trick, eliciting shocked laughter and delighted gasps.
But these digital sleights of hand can also obscure deeper discussion. The dichotomy suggested by The Writer’s tale, which pits live intimacy against digital exposure, feels oversimplified. And although Graham demonstrates our collective complicity with mass surveillance — and gestures, in an interrogation scene, to the technology’s darker uses — there is less exploration of the ways that race, immigration status, and other aspects of identity alter the stakes. Mostly, the creators seem as delighted as we are by the technological stunts: Who knew that your supermarket might realize you’re pregnant before you do? It’s disturbing — and disturbingly hard to look away.
Created by James Graham and Josie Rourke
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
Through August 14