Julian Assange is an enigma. Sometimes he seems like a mere figment of cyberspace. And knowing the truth about him is as difficult as discerning any other truth. Perhaps this is the lesson of Ron Elisha’s ‘Wikiplay’, which sports some very fine writing, but which indulges in a few people-pleasing sidetracks along the way.
It begins, doggie-style, with the global geek vigorously indulging yet another of his one-night stands. Darren Weller is The Most Dangerous Man and seems to have made quite a study of his subject; at times, it’s as if Assange himself is standing before us, for our diagnostic pleasure. I mean, that seems to be the premise of Elisha’s play, which speculates boldly, wildly and, at other times, very reasonably about what makes this blonde bombshell tick and on whether or not he’s a Christlike sooth and truthsayer, or just another Aspie with delusions of grandeur who’s stumbled into the very notoriety he craves. Transnational celebrity and America’s most wanted, out of thin anonymity. What more could a terrorist from Townsville want?
Elisha has enlisted some heavy-hitters to back the work, both on and off-stage. Former Sydney Theatre Company artistic director Wayne Harrison directs. There isn’t much he hasn’t done: NYE Sydney; Broadway (Carnegie Hall); the Adelaide cabaret festival; Bell; Codgers; Tap Dogs; much more. He’s versatile and capable, even if one gets something of a sense he might’ve been coasting a little with this one. But he’s not the only one. The things is, there’s so much calibre involved, they can afford to ease off just a little.
The playwright has wrapped his geek probe in a narrow and questionable conceit: a feature film is being made about Assange. The producer and director are an estranged couple, played by Peter Phelps and Caroline Craig. There seems to be no good reason for this. It’s a vaguely engaging subplot which allows room for some comedic parallels as to man’s inconstancy to his fellow woman, but is otherwise an unnecessary complication and distraction from the main game: as it is, the stage is busy, with actors coming and going, reinventing themselves as other characters.
Brian Thompson has extended his set into the wings, shrouding two whole sections of otherwise saleable seats in a haphazard ‘canvas’ of would-be secret and classified documents. It’s striking. The rest of the design looks like a television of film studio, in keeping with the dramatic structure described above. Martin Kinnane’s lighting seems a little also-ran on this outing, as does Rita Carmody’s costuming. Michael Wilkie (perhaps Andrew, who could’ve come and blown his whistle, would’ve been a more appropriate choice) has come up with the goods, in terms of loud, proud, current affairs sound design. But think ACA or TT, rather than Four Corners. Which seems appropriate, because while this work touches a lot of bases, it just scratches at the door, like a stealthy, timid, feline; it doesn’t break it down.
Russell Smith isn’t likely to fool anyone from Stockholm, or Uppsala, but his appearance as a Swedish delegate struck quite a convincing pose, as did his turn as Assange’s German collaborator. The US President is more of a stretch, but was entertaining enough. But there’s the rub. While it’s healthy to mock the leader of the free world, alongside other leaders, mercilessly and in roughly equal measure, I’m not sure where it fits with the subject at hand. This is the point of departure, at which Elisha, with a little bit of help from his collaborators (not least Harrison), lapses into a pseudo Wharf Revue. As eagerly awaited as its acerbity is year in, year out, once a year is arguably enough. If Stainless Steel Rat isn’t going to run the risk of trivialising a serious subject, it needs to push the eject button on the political satire. Actually, it isn’t so much political satire as mere satire of pollies, which is quite a different thing. It’s a little cheap, tends to rely on hackneyed personifications, and is more in the realm of a political cartoon but, whatever it is, it’s really quite separate from the business at hand.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m the first person to laugh at Valerie Bader’s big red Aussie PM, her drawn-out vowels and didactic presentation of arguments, but when did she become so thick? Obama, too, seems to be relegated to the same intellectual class as Bush. If anything, the most admiration seems to be reserved for the (as portrayed) snakelike President Medvedev, who has a cruelly dry sense of humour, as do the Russians at large, in nominating Assange for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Glenn Hazeldine is pretty damn good as Medvedev, the editor-in-chief of Time and a PR guru though, ironically, he struggles more with the English accent than the Rusky one. Katrina Retallick spends a good deal of her time beside, or under, a variety of blokes, including the A-G, but shines quite brightly as the irrepressible, bantam-weight, pneumatic banter-queen, Kathy Lette, life partner to self-proclaimed illustrious silk, Geoffrey Robertson, who David Downer has down pat.
Marshall Napier has the goods, too, as Assange’s ebullient and eccentric caped lawyer, while Cooper Amai is touching as Assange’s left-behind son, Daniel.
It’s a thrilling and visceral ride, with some very, very good writing, but it ducks and weaves to the point where one wonders what’s really been achieved or elucidated, if anything. Just like WikiLeaks itself really. Has anything new been said? Are there any real revelations? Then again, even to form the intricate, elusive, enigmatic Assange story into a pastiche of events, analysis and speculations is a feat in itself.
It’s interesting, entertaining, charismatic, well-executed (ad apace), with moments of quite profound intensity. Suddenly, a window will open into the psyche or soul of this reviled and celebrated man. But it doesn’t stay open. It’s merely a seductive tease; a feather run across one’s imagination. Still, if it stimulates more reading and research, it’s succeeded in being provocative. And provocative, as I’m sure JA himslef would agree, is a bloody good thing.
The details: Stainless Steel Rat plays the York Theatre at Seymour Centre until July 17. Tickets on the venue website.