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“We are living in a mass surveillance state” – George Mann on politics, privacy and the power of the dystopian

Dystopian thriller Light returns to Battersea Arts Centre at the end of May following two sell-out runs last year. Director, George Mann, talks to us about why audiences aren’t yet bored of the show, how Edward Snowden’s revelations inspired him and his experience of touring it to China.

I’m always fascinated to know what it is about a show that resonates with audiences. The reaction to Light has constantly surprised me. I’ve learnt from our audiences’ responses that Light’s form is exhilarating, sometimes scary, and always surprising. But I believe something more profound is what keeps them coming to see the show – sometimes more than once.

Light is a nightmarish tale of love, betrayal and technological power; it was inspired by Edward Snowden’s revelations about state surveillance back in 2013, and conjures up an Orwellian future where a totalitarian regime monitors the thoughts of its citizens through implants. The entire piece is set atmospherically in total darkness and employs physical theatre, LED torchlight and pulsating soundscapes to draw audiences deep into its sci-fi realm.

The show has been touring on numerous occasions since its 2014 premiere throughout an epoch that has seen the U.K. sleepwalking gradually towards a mass surveillance state. We currently have a Prime Minister who wants to get rid of our Human Rights (including the right to privacy) and is pushing hard to implement the infamous Snoopers Charter.

The journey of the production was unexpected. It all started for me in 2004 when I had a terrifying nightmare set in the future of a surveillance, totalitarian state, inspiring me to write it all down and try to create a piece of theatre about it – unsuccessfully – for 9 years. My struggle had been twofold; on the one hand the whole notion felt very farfetched, paranoid even – which was interesting – and on the other hand I was stuck on how to create a future on stage that didn’t resemble a 70’s Doctor Who set. But the surveillance revelations exposed by Edward Snowden gave the idea sudden relevance and a solution to the problem of creating the future.

What had felt farfetched became all too real – we were being watched in ways that seemed shocking and unbelievable – and not only that, our secret service division, GCHQ, had a rather wonderful code name for our metadata upon which they were spying: LIGHT.

 



What is staggering now, is not that we are living in a mass surveillance state that’s slowly but very surely making their invasion of our privacy legal, it’s that we as people are allowing this invasion to become the norm. That is where the danger lies – if it becomes normal for the state to invade your privacy, then it follows that self censorship, an inherent fear of being watched, being careful about what you store online also become the new normal. We don’t only lose our fundamental right to privacy – which was fought for long and hard by previous generations for good reason – we normalise this loss and forget that we shouldn’t be living in this way; that strangers should not have access to our private conversations, webcams, documents, bank details, phone numbers, Google searches, or be tracking our location, or tracking our ‘emotions’ to see which way we will vote, or to try and influence our vote.

In 2016 Light was invited to tour around China. We had a brilliant adventure – but it was also a shock to us as a company. There had been some trepidation about touring in China, where there are over 60 internet censorship regulations in place and a very watchful eye on the citizens of the republic. Is it even legal, or safe to perform such a show out there? We presumed so, but a lingering fear led to many jokes about how we might never return. But it wasn’t the surveillance or draconian rules that shocked, we had expected that, what shocked us was that we had built up an impression of China through what we were told in the UK, the press, through the internet, news and so on – and it was very far from the truth of our experience.

It was the first time I felt a strong sense of having been conditioned by my environment at home, influenced. It’s easy to judge China’s politics, I myself still don’t know nearly enough about it – but the people I met and the audiences who came to see Light, and who stayed behind to talk with us afterwards revealed that it is a country and a people far more complex that we had allowed in our imaginations.

The people we met in China loved the show, they asked us if it was about China, if the red coloured LED lights we used were a metaphor for China – their questions were challenging, freely asked and intelligent and exciting debate about the production followed the tour. In contrast however, just as we were thinking we had it all wrong after a brilliant post show discussion in which some brave and challenging questions were asked, we learned the following day that the next post-show discussion was cancelled so as not to upset officials. We encountered a people who seemed to challenge our preconceived views, a people who questions – and a state that is continually trying to control them.

Coming back home, it dawned on me that we’re not so far from this reality – and in fact, being the most surveilled nation in the world, we’re probably worse. But the power of normalisation is such that you just don’t see it. As I said, it’s easy to judge another country, but in this case it would be hypocritical.

The power of dystopian science fiction – aside from its imaginative take on what’s to come – is that it uses ‘the future’ as a metaphor and a warning for the clear and present dangers in our own time. I believe the continued demand for Light reflects the fact that the themes the show explores continue to resonate and even grow more urgent to this day.

Light runs from 31 May – 17 Jun, find out or more or book tickets