The Haystack at Hampstead Theatre: At best, it’s a good episode of Spooks
“It ended up doing what plays do when they struggle to take a serious stance, crumpling into banal humour”
The Haystack is a play about GCHQ, Britain’s deep-state surveillance agency. It’s also a play about our freedom to write and have access to news. It’s a concerning and very real situation we’re in, as the tabloid press shoots merrily at its own feet with its coverage of the royals, as higher-brow journalists demonise working-class people, the reader asks themself: The freedom to write this?
We’ve heard it a thousand times. In 24, the Bond films, Spooks and so on; the spy agency’s race against time to protect civil liberties as a terrorist plot gets underway whilst pesky journalists leak sensitive information. Do you want safety, or do you want freedom? If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to worry about.
The Haystack promised to challenge this notion. It follows two dislikeable GCHQ analysts, Neil and Zef, who spend their time browsing Reddit, playing video games and slinging about casual sexism. Neil (Oliver Johnstone), presumably the more sensitive of the two, wins the sparkling opportunity to pry into the cyber-secrets of Guardian investigative journalist Cora (Rona Morison), who they are both obsessively attracted to. Neil quickly finds his life (or rather a made-up life, under the alias Tom) interweaving with that of the desperately unhappy Cora. Inexplicably, they fall in love.
I do not need characters to be ‘good people’ in order to root for them. I like The Thick of It. The difference is I’m not even sure Al Blythe knows quite how creepy his protagonist is. The combined depth of these characters wouldn’t be enough to waterboard a theatre critic.
I saw a hardworking cast. If this were an episode of Spooks, it’d be a fairly good one. What it wasn’t was a play with a hot take on state surveillance. There are rich ethical debates about this topic: Wikileaks, Huawei and Cambridge Analytica, to name a few. The Haystack cast but a desultory glance over these issues. It ended up doing what plays do when they struggle to take a serious stance, crumpling into banal humour; Trump impressions, at least two jokes that were literally just acronyms that turned out to be silly things.
Enyi Okoronkwo and Oliver Johnstone worked hard to breathe some life into the script. Similarly, Rona Morison didn’t miss any beats, but her character never took off and for the focal point of the show, had very few redeeming characteristics. Denise (Lucy Black) and Hannah (Sarah Woodward), newspaper editor and GCHQ boss respectively, were almost exactly the same character.
A cool set, quick pace and wit were not enough to cover this very dull play.
The Haystack will be on at Hampstead Theatre from 31st January – 7th March
Photo Credit: Ellie Kurttz