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Privacy – Donmar Warehouse, booking until 31 May 2014

Privacy or, according to the Donmar’s listing, PRIVACY. Pri-vacy or Priv-acy. In James Graham’s latest play, which follows the unexpectedly huge success of this This House at the National, everything is up for debate. Indeed the amount of audience interaction and feedback means far more democracy is on display in Privacy than in This House’s exploration of parliamentary backchannel deal-making.

It does Privacy a disservice to think of it as a ‘play’; judging against these criteria one has to acknowledge that the fictional narrative is rather slight. The idea of a playwright writing a play about the subject and entering Privacy at Donmar WarehouseSocratic dialogue with those he encounters is lazy for a playwright at this level. We have been living in post-modern culture for over a quarter of a century and this is approach is pretty much meta-101. From a purely textual perspective Privacy is also hindered by the fact that this fictional plot is far less interesting than the people he talks to and the subjects discussed.

Privacy may be sold as a play but in truth it is less play and more a fascinatingly structured lecture that has been fictionalised. It is not dissimilar to the most entertaining TED Talks and the purpose of the evening is more edutainment than anything else. In this environment the characters of writer, director and psychiatrist are entirely secondary to, and at the service of, the relying of information from source to audience.

The structure is familiar to Black Watch; it interweaves verbatim dialogue with dramatized situations. It is unclear how much, if any, of Graham’s work comes from first hand interviews and what has been lifted from other sources, for instance much of the detailing of the Guardian’s involvement in the Snowdon affair and in the destruction of the hard drives felt as if it had been previously recorded elsewhere.

privacy donmar warehouseThis weaving of sources is an entirely appropriate academic technique for synthesising information but without the accompanying intellectual rigour it leaves the production open to criticism over how it represents its material. Theatre does, and should, present partial viewpoints; it is not the role of theatre to present unbiased reportage. Indeed the best verbatim theatre – the tribunal plays produced at the Tricycle under Nicolas Kent – used unbiased reportage to create a clearly partial view.

However Graham’s play sits in a grey area where we are invited to take a view on how shocking it is what the government and big business get up to, and we are meant to feel it is strengthened by including ‘real experts’ speaking ‘real dialogue’. It is a fast-paced and highly enjoyable journey but on reflection doubts over whether it is a substantial whole begin to creep in.

It is a rather superficial gaze on the issues – perhaps reflected in the fact that many of the accounts are given by politicians, journalists and the omni-present Shami Charkrabarti, pretty much the epitome of the liberal media darling. These are all people used to speaking in sound bites, regurgitating complex issues into digestible chunks.

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The Theatre of Politics

This House – National Theatrebooking until 16 May

This House has been the surprise package of what is proving to be a very successful season for the National – defying the surrounding economic gloom with a string of sell-out hits. It was inevitable that tickets for The Effect, Lucy Prebble’s follow-up to ENRON, and the latest Alan Bennett play would be scarcer than gold dust.

However This House did appear to be an altogether tougher sell; a play based almost entirely back rooms of Parliament, set between 1974 and 1979 and refusing the safety-net of caricature by eschewing references to MPs byPhil_Daniels_This_House name. Unless one held an acute knowledge of mid-70’s parliamentary constituencies it paid little concession to providing a Spitting Image-style satire on its subjects other than references to a certain ‘MP for Finchley’ and a fleeting appearance from a young Michael Heseltine.

As a self-confessed political and theatrical nerd none of this was particularly troubling as seeing the political process dissected on stage was the real joy. The likes of David Hare may stage politics with a big ‘P’, and there have always been any number of young tyros looking to reflect the impact of politics on society, but the institutions – the strange and archaic mechanisms that have supported one of the world’s longest running parliamentary democracies seem to have been rarely considered by playwrights.

Lord Scarman summed up the position eloquently in the late 80’s when he referred to the fact that the people are ‘only occasional partners in the constitutional minuet danced for most of the time by Parliament and the political party in power’. For all the radicalism of playwrights and protestors, politicians continue serenely onwards, safe in the institutions that have bent, flexed and twisted but never entirely shattered over the centuries. The British parliamentary system finds durability in its seeming lack of permanence. The lack of a codified constitution allows great flexibility in its approach; rules are in place because they are in place and always have been in place, not because they are written down in a book.

The very essence of maintaining the status quo, a great British tradition, is built into this approach. Without an awareness of the rules, and without any access to them, how can someone challenge the system? It is into these murky waters that James Graham’s This House looks to shine a light. It illuminates the hidden world of small ‘p’ politics; the grindingly mundane processes that allow the Government to govern and teases out exactly what happens when the metaphorical rulebook is thrown out of the metaphorical window.

So much of Parliament – the opening of Parliament by Black Rod, the Queen’s Speech, Prime Minister’s Question Time – is laced with symbolism about the importance of the function it serves, even if these aspects mean nothing to actual governing. James Graham and Jeremy Herrin have intrinsically grasped the parallels with theatre, which is that behind the spectacle there are those working themselves to the bone to keep the wheels turning and where power really resides. This is why the play focuses on the political Whips; the backroom boys who ensure that everything happens on time, that people know what they are supposed to be doing and that things actually happen.

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