For once, keeping your cellphones on in the theater is allowed—indeed, the LED glow of screens, tip-tapping of fingers, and little sneezes of cameras taking pictures is strongly welcomed and encouraged.
For in James Graham’s Privacy, presently at New York’s Public Theater directed by Josie Rourke (the two “created” the show together), what our phones store and how that information can compromise us is just one knot in a play that delves both flippantly and deeply into technology and its intrusion into all areas of our lives.
Daniel Radcliffe (most famous for playing Harry Potter) plays a character called the writer, who when we first meet him is in the throes of a romance-related depression, and seeking answers from shrink Josh (Reg Rogers) in a London treatment room.
Behind them, a screen we have seen fill up with fingerprints—intended to symbolize digital imprints, presumably—begins to take on its visually dominant role of the evening, relating to the audience the many ways that modern technology has made us not just more active in the public realm, but also more private, and how that desire for privacy is becoming ever-more illusory.
As soon as that first shrink tells the writer he himself has written a book, we see the writer go straight online to order it—it arrives on stage in seconds. The writer confesses he has become more and more lost in tech-world—how long stretches of time are lost to googling something, then ending up, hours or minutes later (and via Adele’s version of “Hello”), down a few more cyber-holes.
On a screen behind the actors these cyber-holes are wittily played out to groans of recognition from the audience. Those groans become more alarmed when we are told just how much of our geographical movements are being recorded. Our phones were never meant to be this smart. The show is genuinely interactive: you may want to live, far off any grid in a big, dark cave, by the end.
Both Radcliffe and the Public Theater beseech audiences not to write anything specific about the interactive japes and surprises in the show, which—as Ben Brantley in The New York Times noted—makes writing about Privacy as tricky as some of the subjects it raises.
The writer’s odyssey brings him to New York, and the play weaves in testimonies from high-profile interviewees Graham and Rourke secured, including Guardian journalist Ewen MacAskill, Sherry Turkle (who is played on stage by Rachel Dratch), and Randi Zuckerberg—these figures are played by Radcliffe’s five fellow actors. They are an experts’ polyphony, reciting familiar and unfamiliar recommendations and cautions about technology, its history, its use, and its misuses. Listen carefully, and be alarmed (especially when The Tempest is recited alongside the dense word soup of a gadget’s instructions).
For all the techno-dressing—and the spectral appearance of Edward Snowden—there are some traditional themes in Privacy. Heartbreak is the catalyst in the writer’s erratic behavior: how sad he is to not be able to go out, and order products in, so much so that his New York apartment is its own artfully designed Manhattan skyline made of Amazon boxes; how sad he is to want to know and not to know everything about what his ex is doing; and how technology makes it easy to still be in close virtual contact with those who have physically left our lives.
What the writer is really missing is love and connection. And technology—despite dating apps and public profiles—only exacerbates the hunger, rather than sates it. Fitness technology, we are told, can even monitor when we are having sex, which leads to a horrible scene for our writer in regards the invisible ex, while technologies like store cards help those stores and other businesses keep a gimlet eye on us to sell us more things at just the right moment.
Surveillance technology on our streets, and in police vans, means that even when we are on our laptops or cellphones compromising our own privacy, other forms of technology are compromising it for us.
One response to all this, as advanced by a slick-talking marketing character—horrified that the writer is an anonymous “egg” on Twitter—is for us to curate public personas for ourselves via Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. This will further compromise your privacy, of course, but in a way that you would choose.
Radcliffe plays the writer with a beguiling mix of befuddlement, upset, and indignation: he is also adept at acting in the moment as demanded by his interactions with some members of the audience. Whatever tech design hijinks is happening around him, we are focused on Radcliffe’s character.
His view that because he is British it means that, by nature, he’s less expressive than Americans turns out to be something of a canard: Privacy suggests that technology is making us expressive on our own in front of a glowing screen, but incapable when trying to sustain in-person relationships with others. One of the most nervously advanced lines in the play is when the writer’s Manhattan neighbor says she is there for him if he, like, needs some sugar.
His character is encouraged to become more open and less socially awkward, even if he is by nature an introvert. But the question, and it is not a question Privacy arrives at any clear answer about, is how to live a fulfilling life in today’s worlds balancing the exigencies of public and private? One audience exercise around this proves oddly chilling, and one near the end infinitely more heartening.
Privacy seems to advance, tenderly, that the only way through this tech-marshland is to be as considerate as possible to each another, to talk to one another, to not simply retreat to behind screens. That may well be the humane response, and the optimist’s response too.
But the pace and stealth of technical change, innovation, and invasion as conveyed in Privacy—the omnipresence of technology and how much we have capitulated ourselves to its dominance in the name of convenience and its promise of efficiency and intimacy—shows that the desire for connection may not be enough to be our saving grace. Not if the promise of something else is just a click away.
Privacy is at the Public Theater until Aug. 14.