Watching me, watching you

It has been some time in coming, but the NSA has arrived in the West End. Or at least, on stage (in real life they have probably been there for ages…). I’m referring of course to James Graham’s new play Privacy, which is currently showing at the Donmar Warehouse. Where Privacy sees a big crowd come under the scrutiny of a select few, the Royal Court has the exact opposite on offer: Simon Stephens’ Birdland shows the effects international superstardom can have on one person. Two ends of the scale, but one question: how does the knowledge that we’re being watched change us?

Privacy and the theatre: it’s a strange combination. After all, a theatre is a place purposely built to give the people on stage an audience while they’re spilling their innermost thoughts. Granted, those people are characters, and those thoughts aren’t ‘real’, but that doesn’t change theatre’s inherent voyeuristic nature. In his excellent book Stage Fright, Animals, and Other Theatrical Problems Nicholas Ridout even argues that the coming together of the private and the public on stage is one of the factors contributing to stage fright. Actors show on stage those actions and emotions that in today’s society, where we increasingly separate our ‘real self’ from the persona we present in public life, we confine to the private sphere. Moreover, they draw upon their own life experiences to do so, and thereby expose themselves, at least partly, to the unforgiving public eye.

But isn’t this ‘openness’ what we, as a society, want and value? After all, we live in the age of reality TV and celebrity culture, the latter of which Stephens has so powerfully portrayed in Birdland. Millions of pairs of eyes follow every move that our most beloved superstars make, wanting to know everything there is to know about them (and preferably even more). We sacrifice their privacy for our entertainment, arguing that they ‘knew what they were getting into’ as if that somehow justifies our most invasive probing.

At the same time however, we’re more obsessed with our personal privacy than ever. There have been plenty of examples in recent times to confirm suspicions that private moments are increasingly hard to come by. In the theatre at least, there’s the safety of the crowd: you anonymously sit in your seat in the dark, part of the entity known to those on stage simply as ‘the audience’. Right? That this is a false of security all the same is proven by Graham’s Privacy. The play actually singles people out from the crowd, putting them on display, much as actors are put on display in theatre in general. It shows that the safe feeling we get from knowing that we’re part of a huge crowd can be turned around in an instant: you can still get picked out, be put in the spotlight, and then the safe mass of people suddenly becomes a scarily large audience. At least actors have the advantage of familiarity; they know how to deal with having the eyes of the crowd fixed upon them.

In other words, we can definitely accuse theatre of being a bit of a hypocrite in wanting to deal with the privacy issue. But it’s this duplicity that also makes theatre a very effective medium to address the matter. Both Birdland and Privacy make you acutely aware of the strangeness of the situation by demanding your complicity. And you better make you sure you cooperate. After all, they know where you live.