The Haystack: “We can’t find the needles, unless we collect the whole haystack.”

Written by: Amber Iglesia and Zehra Jafree

Al Blyth’s debut play The Haystack at the Hampstead Theatre centres on two laddish workers at GCHQ. They are charged with the task of gathering intelligence of a leak which enables Guardian writer Cora to get hold of information regarding Middle Eastern politics.

The play raises the question of what one would do if given 24-hour access to one’s flat, communications, phone calls, CCTV cameras, financial transactions, and constant GPS monitoring without their awareness. 

The originality of this espionage thriller triggered debate – a debate we should all be having. The sensitive issues are explored delicately in a way that combines a humorous yet committed narrative concerning the ethical issues of surveillance technology. It’s safe to say that the subject matter is bold, and Al Blyth does not hold back on revealing the intricate moral complexities technology triggers in a professional and personal capacity. 

I can safely say I have never before seen an espionage thriller which explores the moral issues of public safety, national security and surveillance on stage. This subject is a moral minefield, however Al Blyth successfully streamlines it to the paradoxical dilemmas that ensue, in a way which is tangible for a modern audience. There were moments that reminded me of Gavin Hood’s 2019 film Official Secrets which takes a decidedly more political stance, an aspect this play fails to address yet doesn’t feel wanting. 

During the intermission we spoke about how it felt like the play was cribbed straight from the plot of a primetime BBC crime drama – neither of us had seen anyone attempt to pull a concept like this off on a stage. Perhaps there’s a reason for it. I question whether a thriller espionage can find its own theatrical form in a way that is as compelling as the results we are so used to on the big screen.

The play heavily relies on technology and a stripped back but dynamic and moving set. This in itself is not an issue. When done purposefully, the prolific use of technology can elevate a piece to another dimension. Sadly, The Haystack didn’t quite meet that challenge. The use of screens and projections throughout are, off-putting and distracting at times. It feels as though they only serve to mask moments of lacklustre narrative. However, the desire to show the inescapability of digital surveillance is clear throughout the play and is portrayed effectively and consistently. 

The constant use of technology accentuates the melodrama, particularly towards the end. It serves as a reminder that, at the end of the day, this production is fiction and further extrapolation is not worth it. The use of technology wasn’t as purposeful as I would have liked: out-of-time queues and small mashups with the set made it hard to stay engrossed in the narrative. 

Speaking of which, whilst undoubtedly having a slow burner quality the stonking run time of 2 hours 45 minutes made me feel like there were a number of scenes in the first half that could have been cut.

Nonetheless, The Haystack is an incredible, important story. Audiences are forced to look inwards and question their own prejudices, conceptions, and thoughts on the value of their privacy. It is an exciting – albeit slow – 2 hours and 45 minutes and the cast often shines.

It is rare to catch a thriller on stage which provokes considerable reflection on the state of society. While some of these debates are a bit close to comfort, the witty narrative and superb acting all-round makes The Haystack a promising start for Al Blyth. 

The Haystack is being performed at the Hampstead Theatre from 31 January to 12 March 2020.

“It’s a classic base-rate fallacy. (Off her blank look.) A false-positive paradox… when you test a large population for a very rare condition – like, say, ‘being a terrorist’ – your test needs to be as accurate as the condition is rare. Otherwise, you’re guaranteed to get swamped with false positives.”

“Which is why you’re going to improve the accuracy –”

“It won’t make a difference. You’re searching for a few thousand terrorists, in a population of, what, sixty-six million people? If you even have a one-per-cent false-positive rate – which would be spectacular, by the way – you’ll end up falsely accusing sixty-six thousand innocent people, for every one terrorist you accurately detect. It’s worse than no test at all.”


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