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Actor Joshua McGuire performs during the play ‘Privacy’ by James Graham in London. (AP)
‘Privacy’ makes drama from data Dialect coach evaluates 3 Broadway shows

LONDON, April 27, (AP): “Privacy,” a new drama that has London buzzing, is probably the first play to open with a request that the audience keep their smartphones switched on. It’s certainly the first to have theatergoers snapping selfies before the intermission. By the end, they may be tempted to throw those phones out the window. James Graham’s exciting, interactive and alarming drama suggests that our smartphones and computers know us better than we know ourselves. The play asks whether privacy is dead in an era when millions share their innermost thoughts on social media, mobile phones act as electronic trackers and government snoops hoover up vast amounts of data on their citizens. Graham insists the play is not arguing “that we should all dump our iPhones in the dustbin.” Despite months of eye-opening research, he still has a smartphone and a Twitter account.

“We wanted to say, look, a lot of this stuff is amazing, but we have to keep constantly checking in and going, is the balance right?” he said. “The amount we share ... has changed radically in the past five years in a way I think it hasn’t in the past 500 years.” The play, which opened this week at London’s Donmar Warehouse, follows a fictional writer and a director — “better-looking, thinner, younger versions of us,” quips the play’s real director, Josie Rourke — as they explore the power of the Internet and the meaning of identity in an online age.

Graham — a 31-year-old wunderkind whose last play, “This House,” made backroom British politics in the 1970s unexpectedly thrilling — conducted 60 hours of interviews with dozens of researchers, politicians, civil liberties activists and spies. A cast of six plays everyone from the former head of British spy agency GCHQ to the inventor of the supermarket loyalty card and Cambridge University academics who say they can infer everything from political views to sexual orientation from an individual’s Facebook “likes.” Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden appears, too, as do the Guardian newspaper journalists who published his leaked documents revealing details of U.S. spies’ ability to snoop on vast amounts of electronic communications.

But what could have been just an illustrated lecture is elevated by Rourke’s snappy staging, deft performances and innovative use of audience participation. Before long, members of the audience are taking selfies and emailing them in. Soon theatergoers’ home addresses, occupations and much more are being beamed on big screens to the audience. Fittingly enough, Graham and Rourke hope viewers will keep the details of the show’s more dramatic revelations private. But on opening night, some audience members audibly gasped at how much their electronic devices disclosed. During intermission, the theater was full of people hastily changing the privacy settings on their phones. That’s music to the ears of the writer and the director.

“Part of the ambition of the show is to have people understand what the relationship is between them and their data ... be that Facebook, Google or the security services,” Rourke said. “What are they taking, what am I giving, what do I want, what am I happy with?” “Privacy” is the latest hit for the Donmar, which has an influence far bigger than its 270 seats and a strong record of attracting younger theatergoers. The company recently had fans lining up around the block to see “Thor” star Tom Hiddleston in Shakespeare’s grueling tragedy “Coriolanus.” Graham said his goal with “Privacy” was to make a complex issue feel urgent by making it “about people’s shopping and about people’s relationships and about people’s love life and about people’s feelings, about people’s sexuality, about people’s politics.” “If we can do that and also have people leave at 10 o’clock at night going ‘I really enjoyed myself at the theater,’ then that for me is the pure reason why I became a writer,” he said.

That special sound you hear on Broadway these days could be a British accent. Three hit shows — “Matilda the Musical,” ‘’A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder” and “Kinky Boots” — all have mainly Yanks in their casts playing English men, women, boys and girls. How are they doing? For the most part, not too bad, said Patricia Fletcher, a dialect coach for film, TV and stage actors who teaches at the New School for Drama and has seen all three shows. “They all delivered in different ways,” said Fletcher, who has trained such actors as Harvey Keitel, Lynn Redgrave, Jean Reno, Drea de Matteo, Elias Koteas and Gina Gershon. “They really came through for the most part.” The show that fared best in her book was “Gentleman’s Guide,” a show set in 1909 in England about an impoverished man who discovers he’s ninth in line to inherit a fortune, so he decides to eliminate the eight heirs of the D’Ysquith family standing in his way. All eight victims are played by Jefferson Mays — two women and six men.

“They really had character within dialect,” Fletcher said. “I don’t have that much real criticism, especially if I’m focusing on dialect. I think people are going to be entertained and have fun.” The other two shows had some problems: “Kinky Boots,” the high-energy Cyndi Lauper musical about a British shoe factory that finds new life in drag footwear, had accents that were inconsistent, Fletcher found. But, she added, few may notice amid the cross-dressing, dancing and jokes: “It’s so wild that you almost expect the dialects to be just over the top anyway.” The dialect in “Matilda,” a witty musical adaptation of the beloved novel by Roald Dahl about a telekinetic schoolgirl, was good, but it often got washed out by overlapping voices and complex choreography, she said. “The best one technically was ‘Gentleman’s Guide,’” she said. “‘Kinky Boots’ was in and out. With ‘Matilda,’ I don’t think it was the dialect as much as the staging and the fact that they had everybody doing everything at once.”

A spokeswoman for “Matilda” declined to comment, saying the show speaks for itself. Rick Miramontez, a “Kinky Boots” representative, replied: “We think our American cast members do a fantastic job with their characters’ dialects. The characters’ genders, however, are indeed often inconsistent.” Perhaps one of the reasons “Gentleman’s Guide” was tighter dialect-wise is that the show has an unofficial accent cop — Jane Carr, an English-born former member of the Royal Shakespeare Company who has been on the TV show “Dear John” and on Broadway in “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby” and “Mary Poppins.” Carr will diplomatically take aside an actor if he or she has made a mess of a pronunciation at least three times. “It’s not easy to be consistent in another accent, things do get stretched a little. I try to readjust it when it starts sounding wrong.” Ultimately, Fletcher doesn’t think most Broadway audiences will much care about some poor pronunciations. The fact that all three are exuberant musicals and not serious dramas gives the actors plenty of leeway. “If you’re not a dialect coach, you’re not going to be bothered that actors are dropping things a bit,” she said. But, Fletcher added with a laugh: “They wouldn’t get away with it in England.”

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