The Snooper’s Charter, Dystopian Nightmares and Why Politicians Should Always Fear Theatre

Back in 2004 I woke up in a sweat after a nightmare: I was trapped, paranoid and terrified in an all seeing surveillance state - there were quite literally eyes everywhere watching me. In the walls, on light switches, the tables I ate off and worked on, my clothes - everywhere. Waking up I wrote it all down. I'm a theatre maker, and I imagined it could form the backbone of a play one day. 

Then in 2013, Edward Snowden revealed that our own government and secret services - meant to protect us - have in fact been invading our privacy, reading and watching our online activity for 15 years or more without our permission - all in the name of security. Yet they are accountable to no-one, least of all the so-called democratic society of taxpayers funding its existence. I was outraged, surprised, (and yet not surprised because lets face it, we all kind of knew it could be happening but ignored it or felt it must be too far-fetched and Orwellian), but most of all I felt hopeless. Powerless. Left with the impotency of the question: what can we do? 

This government is intent on scrapping the Human Rights Act. They’ve established secret courts. Media moguls like Murdoch are in bed with top ministers and our press is gradually feeling silenced and gagged. Effectively, the power and rights that we have as a people, as a democracy, are being removed. But because we’ve had it so good for so long, we seem to have developed a sense of complacency. Ironically, as we have all gradually acquiesced to having screens dominate our lives – as ingenious and helpful as they can be – we’ve become detached and distracted from the real world. So as we laugh at cats on Facebook, our freedom is crumbling beneath out feet. And if we don’t fight for it now, we may very well find ourselves sleepwalking, screens in hand, faces LED-lit, towards a dark future. 

the most unsettling thing is that the government does not seem that interested in debating privacy in any profound way

I write all this just as our elected government are trying to pass the infamous Snoopers’ Charter. The Home Secretary, Theresa May, maintains the bill is essential to preventing terrorism and catching criminals by tracking their internet and communications data. But campaigners like Open Rights Group highlight the problem with this argument:

“The government is using fear of terrorism to persuade the public that they should give up their rights. We need to show more members of the public that what the government is proposing is mass surveillance and it does have serious implications for their privacy and security.”  

You know things are bad when Tech behemoths like Apple are submitting eight page reports to parliament detailing their concerns about the Snooper's Charter.

Perhaps the most unsettling thing is that the government does not seem that interested in debating privacy in any profound way, and some of their attempts to address public concerns around surveillance are veiled with threats: if you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to worry about. 

Wait a minute. If this is a democracy, then we the people have elected the government, not to rule us like children, paranoid about what we have to hide, but to serve us and run the country in our interest. Who are the terrorists the government is cracking down on? How long before I have to start hiding what I once had the right to keep private?

THEATRE TODAY CAN STILL HAVE A SIGNIFICANT IMPACT - ENOUGH THAT THE AUTHORITIES WILL STILL TRY TO SILENCE IT IF IT TOUCHES A RAW NERVE

As a theatre maker I felt an urgency to try and use my art form to explore surveillance as a theme, and hypothesise about where our surveyed society is heading. During my research, I discovered that GCHQ have a codename for our metadata upon which they are spying: Light. It became the title of the play, a dystopian sci-fi positing a future of total surveillance in which the state surveys its citizens' minds. It also became the style in which the story is told: set in total darkness, the play uses LED torch light manipulated by the actors to tell its story.

But can theatre really make a difference? Does it have a place in all this?

In the past there were times when theatre and art were feared - they're powerful if used in the right way. Theatre was made illegal in 1642 in England and all theatres closed to ‘prevent public disorder’  Just last year in London, a play called Homegrown exploring why children are joining Islamic State was suddenly pulled - the director and playwright claim they were 'silenced' by the local authority and police. So theatre today can still have a significant impact - enough that the authorities will still try to silence it if it touches a raw nerve. I'm not for a moment suggesting Light will trigger a 'surveillance revolution'. Though I do hope that it will provoke thought and discussion amongst audiences. The truth is, I just had to do something. And I believe that theatre does have a role to play in making us engage with questions about who we are and who we want to be as people and as a society. 

It’s fair to say that we can often feel dwarfed by an incomprehensible system and it's hard to know what we can do. It can feel as if our actions are insignificant. But if we look back in order to decide how to move forward, we can take inspiration from all those in the past who fought for the rights and freedoms we still enjoy today. At least for the time being anyway. 

George Mann is the Co-Artistic Director of Theatre Ad Infinitum, who are currently developing their new show Bucket List. @TheatreAdInf

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