Julian Assange is the man in the middle, caught between the plaudits of his admirers and the threats of those who would see him brought to justice for his crusade, and at the centre of Wikileaks, the world’s most infamous publisher of classified information. Ron Elisha’s quick-write ‘Wikiplay’ is in the middle too, in the middle of a story which unfurls around it. It is incomplete by necessity, and in its best moments turns this to its advantage.
Assange is on trial throughout the play, both literally in that it occurs through the preparations for his 2011 extradition hearing, and in the sense that Elisha uses this structure to stress-test the ideals which Assange claims to uphold. In fragments lasting only a few minutes each, we see Assange the parka-wearing cyber-fugitive, Assange the eloquent victim of unfair incarceration, Assange the careless lothario and Assange the neglectful father. Darren Weller’s wild-eyed performance leaves questions of Assange’s moral rectitude, genius and even basic integrity undecided. We see the energy which whips supporters and enemies alike into a frenzy, but this is no hagiography, and the disturbing possibility that Wikileaks was more about hacking than human rights is never laid to rest. Elisha and Weller create an Assange who is definitely paranoid, unquestionably arrogant and potentially a self-deluding fraud. He has dedicated years of his life to the pursuit of truth, yet seems to have ceased believing in it himself.
The portrait of Assange is an engaging attempt to capture the contradictions in our knowledge of him, in his lifestyle and his purported aims. Elisha playfully alludes to parallels with Mark Zuckerberg, Che Guevara and Oscar Wilde, but by the play’s conclusion he has called even Assange’s notability into question. It is rare to see a playwright tussle in such detail with a story still in flux; Elisha’s play has already been retitled and updated since its Australian premiere in late 2011 (when it went by the name of Stainless Steel Rat), and there is no reason why it should not continue to evolve as Assange’s place in history becomes clearer.
Unfortunately, as strong as its centre-point is, the edges of the story are hopelessly frayed and the background clumsily sketched in. The ubiquitous iPads, Angry Birds gags and phone hacking jibes feel like desperate sops to the contemporary setting rather than coherent elements of the modern world. Those scenes which do not contain Assange are a limp and lazy pick and mix of political satire, stuffed to bursting with unfunny punchlines. There are fascinating issues to be explored, particularly regarding global governments’ inability to control information in the face of social media networking, but everything here is too pat to do more than skim across their surface. David Cameron’s meeting with Zuckerberg is the demolition of a straw man by Screech from Saved by the Bell. Elisha bravely attacks Obama as an enemy of free speech and the First Amendment, and Ben Onwukwe’s performance gives us a far greasier and more cynical President than we are used to, but too many of the barbs fail to hit their intended target. Obama’s obsession with black solidarity within American politics is even faintly disturbing.
Agnes Treplin’s simple design and Fergus O’Hare’s similarly stark soundtrack are effective and well used, and barring occasional technical hitches and slipped accents the production is smooth and efficient. Lucy Skilbeck directs with an excellent eye for the ambivalence of Elisha’s script, balancing Assange’s messianic pretensions with his often absurd and unnerving physical presence. Assange is in the middle of this story, and of his own, and this production brings him rather brilliantly to life.