Hampstead Theatre January-March 2020
Playwright Al Blyth tries to
squeeze a lot into his first full-length play. Remarkably, he almost
succeeds, but eventually it just bursts at the seams and collapses.
A pair of computer nerds work
for the government, tracking down security breaches. They trace a couple
of leaks to a woman journalist and put her under surveillance.
One of the nerds becomes
fascinated by her and starts cyber-watching her on his own, eventually
falling for her and using what he knows about her to meet her and act like
her dream man.
So we have a blend here of a
few familiar plots, the obsessed stalker, the cop who falls for the
suspect and the I-read-your-diary rom-com. And the play uneasily switches
back and forth among them, so we're not always sure whether the guy is
lovable, dangerous or just creepy.
At the same time that we're
trying to sort out how we feel about what's going on, the play repeatedly
backs away from the personal story to try to decide how it feels about
While the case is strongly
made for the need for information, what Blyth reports is that things are
far worse than most paranoiacs can imagine. Not only does the government
have the ability to listen to all phone calls and read all e-mails, but it
can follow all Google searches, record all keystrokes, outwit any attempts
at encryption and use our own cameras to watch us.
And it does, because one
thing it can't do is spot the potential terrorists and focus on them, so
it has to watch everyone. (The title alludes to the idea that to find the
hidden needle you have to look through the entire haystack.)
The problem with The Haystack
as a play is that the story of the obsessed nerd and the report on the
extent of cyber-surveillance keep bumping into each other as they fight
for our attention.
When the personal drama
reaches an emotional high point it is inevitably interrupted by a scene
involving the computer guy's boss or colleague in which we learn even more
about privacy intrusions. And when we work to absorb that new revelation
our attention is diverted back to the lovers.
Sometimes this dramatic
tension can be very effective, as in a sequence in which the hero
essentially carries on two conversations at once, reassuring the girl that
she's safe with him while collaborating with his buddy on how to invade
privacy more efficiently.
But too often, and
increasingly toward the end, the play keeps threatening to spin out of
control and break apart.
It is very much to the credit
of the playwright and director Roxana Silbert that things hang together as
long as they do, and that we always know where we are even when we are
jumping between topics and levels.
Oliver Johnstone as the boy, Rona Morison as the girl and Enyi Okoronkwo as the fellow nerd lead a strong cast, some of them appearing only in the production's extensive use of projections and video effects.
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Review - The Haystack - Hampstead Theatre 2020