Stage secrets … Josie Rourke and James Graham. Photograph: Linda Nylind for the Guardian
Within a few hours of my meeting with playwright James Graham we are following each other on Twitter. This feels appropriate and cosy in 2014: the right level of intimacy for two people who don’t exactly know each other but have a connection. Graham is a fan of Twitter. He has been on it since the 2010 general election. He admits he has “calmed down” in recent years, and no longer feels compelled to tweet every detail of his existence to unknown others (such as “sunsets or dolphins”).
Graham describes himself on his Twitter bio as a writer of “plays and emails”. This understates his success as one of Britain’s most interesting and original young playwrights. This House, his witty political drama set in the whips’ office of 1970s Westminster, transferred from the National’s Cottesloe theatre to the Olivier, following critical acclaim. In the autumn of 2012, he and Josie Rourke, the new artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse, began discussing how the digital age had transformed human behaviour. Was there, they wondered, a way of turning the modern obsession with social media – the minute self-chronicling of everyday lives, to the point where many people even photograph their food – into a theatrical experience?
What followed was a “quite gentle investigative process”. The two spent a week brainstorming in Rourke’s London kitchen. She considered commissioning a work on the Leveson inquiry, only for the National Theatre of Scotland to beat her to it. “I got interested in the technology around Leveson. What is phone hacking? What are the legalities?” Rourke says. Graham, meanwhile, was busy with This House.
Then, last summer, a 29-year-old contractor working for America’s top-secret National Security Agency gave the project an extraordinary dramatic hook. Over the past 10 months, Edward Snowden‘s revelations – based on documents he swiped and leaked to Guardian journalists – have transformed the way we think about the issue of privacy. The man himself is holed up in Moscow. What once seemed fantastical or unreasonably paranoid or bonkers is now leaked fact.
Thanks to Snowden we know the US and UK governments routinely spy on us, hoover up our private data and store it. This omniscient surveillance captures most of what we do online: web searches, email addresses, headers. The intelligence agencies can do amazing things. They can geo-track our movements. They can help themselves to our selfies. From all this you can tell a rich electronic story of someone’s life: joys, sorrows, loves, secrets.
Snowden doesn’t appear as a character in Graham’s new play Privacy, which opened this week at the Donmar. Instead, he is a giant off-stage presence. Graham likens Snowden’s dramatic role in Privacy to that ofMargaret Thatcher and James Callaghan in This House: neither of them actually come on stage; they inform the mood from outside. “I felt the British media focused too much on Snowden, and on his personality and motivations. It’s the content he revealed that really fascinates me,” Graham says.