These days, if you want to certify a play as political, you conjure up Edward Snowden. Mike Bartlett’s Wild, just on at London’s Hampstead Theatre, does as much by introducing an American character who’s done something questionable with classified material back home and is being interviewed by two mysterious figures in a Moscow hotel.
Privacy, which premiered at London’s Donmar Warehouse and is now running at the Public Theater, sets aside the figurative for the literal, projecting a brief, jovial video of the controversial expat, whose very name instantly sets off hero-traitor arguments. Yes, political issues are set in motion right quick in the piece by James Graham and Josie Rourke, Donmar’s artistic director (he wrote, she directs).
Are the politics presented with undeniable conviction? The answer could be yes in a production where cell phones are not only requested to be kept on but where a charging station sits outside the theater.
Brexit crops up, along with Pokemon Go.
Yet few, if any, Privacy revelations are brand, spanking new. George Orwell told us in 1984, published in 1949, that Big Brother would be watching us. Much more recently, CBS’ Person of Interest regularly began with the ominous statement, “You are being watched.”
But Privacy does get into things like cookies, of the non-Cookie Monster type. Many of us accept them into our computers without much thought; now we know these invaders gather details of our lives and fill in various databases with so much information that we’re all but completely public figures.
Whether Privacy — featuring Lucy Osborne’s flexible set, Richard Howell’s lighting and Duncan McLean’s projections — achieves its goal, however, is another matter. Studiously avoiding polemics, Graham and Rourke have conceived of Privacy as an entertainment. They’ve molded it as a way to have fun while educating and alerting. For Graham, in particular, this is a consistent theme: His 2012 This House at the National Theatre, exploring how the British Parliament is actually run by anonymous whips, is one of the two, three best political plays of the last few decades, enlightening and entertaining all at once.
What’s on stage here — and off, since there’s much audience participation, including requests to forward selfies to the Public’s website — resembles a TV show like The Dating Game or The Bachelor — or, in another format, a TED talk. At its center is an English writer, called The Writer, which Daniel Radcliffe plays as someone with specific Radcliffean attributes, such as being five-feet-five. His psychotherapist, played by Reg Rogers, encourages him to visit the US after a recently ended relationship. (The object of The Writer’s thwarted affection was a man, but that’s beside the point.)
Few, if any, revelations are brand, spanking new.
Yet if Privacy is up-to-the-minute (yoo-hoo, Siri!), it’s not especially sustaining. Two acts and two-and-a-half hours, it does go on; the second act can be especially tiresome to watch. In one segment, The Writer speed-dates with three audience members, about whom evidently accurate details have been gathered and then, from a binder given to Radcliffe, the details are announced loudly for the purpose of sheer embarrassment. (Should Privacy be called Invasion of Privacy?) This audience-participation idea unfolds in three parts and eventually threatens to get out of hand, with the participants balking at their treatment. Although Graham and Rourke exercise more control over the proceedings than you think.
The reason is a mitigating factor: Radcliffe. He not only radiates charm and an advanced facility for ad-libbing but astonishing acting technique. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised: his Harry Potter years situated him with the best English actors, unwittingly matriculating him into the extremely exclusive Hogwarts Acting Academy. Sometimes speaking at the velocity of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, he carries off his hectic assignment with aplomb, adding smartly to his growing list of Manhattan stage credits.
Still, for all of this, Graham and Rourke deal with the pithy, increasingly timely politics of Privacy less extensively than they might have had they allotted less frivolity. Would they have said more by giving themselves less time to say it? Would some elaboration on legislation from past, present or future, from the US or UK or elsewhere, have been too dry to enact on stage? Surely not with such imaginative folks as these.