A small experimental theatre in London has beaten Hollywood to produce the first artistic interpretation of the explosive News of the World hacking scandal using the hacked voicemails of volunteers.
Theatre503 in Battersea, south London, invited six members of the public to surrender their voicemails for its new show, “Hacked”, a quick-fire response to the controversy that precipitated the downfall of the 168-year-old tabloid.
The scandal came to a head in July when it emerged that an investigator working for the Rupert Murdoch-owned paper had hacked the voicemail of missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler, who was later found murdered.
The theatre, known for promoting up-and-coming writers, wanted to spark a debate about privacy, said Lisa Cagnacci, one of the production’s curators.
“We weren’t interested in doing a verbatim production, we were more interested in how society has lost its sense of what should be public and what should be private,” Cagnacci said.
“Hacked” is the brainchild of The Daily Telegraph newspaper’s deputy theatre critic Dominic Cavendish.
This is not the first time Cavendish has worked with the theatre. In 2010, he created “Coalition”, exploring the Conservative-Liberal Democrat governing coalition and “Decade”, a retrospective of the past ten years.
Several nights of the show’s first run sold out. In fact, the concept proved so popular that the theatre hopes to bring it back, using the same format but recruiting new volunteers.
According to co-curator Derek Bond, audience members compared the play to looking through somebody’s diary. “Some people looked a little uncomfortable at times, but I think that?s entirely appropriate,” Bond admitted.
Cagnacci and Bond were responsible for hacking into the volunteers? voicemails and used similar methods to those thought to have been employed by the News of the World hackers — only this time with the permission and pin numbers of those involved.
“We found it so wrong to be listening into somebody else?s messages, but we got totally mesmerised by it,” Cagnacci confessed.
They handed each inbox over to a playwright. The result was six short plays inspired by everything from the spurned advances of a would-be boyfriend to the humdrum minutiae of daily life documented in the messages.
For some, such special access was irresistible.
“What writer isn?t intrigued by the idea of listening to someone?s voicemails?” said Dawn King, one of the contributing playwrights. “Writers are just nosy, so it was really fun.”
The plays in “Hacked” ranged from an attempt to recreate a volunteer’s life to an imaginative take on a single detail from a message. Some dealt directly with the scandal while others chose to address the issue through a human tale.
Playwright Anna Jordan was concerned she had jeopardised the privacy not of the volunteers, but of those leaving messages.
She based her play, “Showmance”, on the voicemails left by a man trying desperately to get in touch with the woman who had happily surrendered her phone.
“I didn’t know whether she had told the guy who phoned her. I was concerned about him and I definitely felt for this guy,” Jordan said.
One of the volunteers, who wished to remain anonymous, had similar worries.
“Obviously people who leave messages never expect them to be heard by anyone other than me. I did have to check it with one person.
“There was immediately a sense of panic — they were desperately trying to think, ?Oh my god, what did I say?'”
Another volunteer was alarmed by how easily one voicemail could distort the image of the recipient.
“The real situation can become skewed from the odd message that gives a spike of interest in a moment when someone needed something from you with no context.”
Bond said: “We’re all glad that the content has definitely been striking to people.” And he admitted that “everyone involved in the project definitely thinks twice before leaving a voicemail.”
In September, News International, the British publishing arm of Murdoch’s News Corp., reportedly offered Milly Dowler’s family £2 million (2.3 million euros, $3.1 million) in compensation.