Man In The Middle (Fringe)

Our critics rating: 
Sunday, 15 January, 2012

There cannot be many people who haven't heard of Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, the website set-up to disclose information that governments in particular would rather keep locked behind impenetrable doors, preferably for eternity. Though WikiLeaks is almost synonymous with Mr Assange himself, this play focuses more on the man rather than the whistle-blowing vehicle, though it also includes scenes which describe the effects on the other people whose lives have been affected, directly or indirectly by Mr Assange's activities.

The play was written by Ron Elisha and originally presented in Australia under the title 'Stainless Steel Rat'. Apparently that was deemed unsuitable for British audiences and was given the elbow. But the title is not the only aspect of the play which has received a makeover. According to an article in the Guardian, the play has undergone considerable revisions during the current production to the tune of 14 different drafts – and possibly more now that the curtain has finally gone up. There is certainly a sense that it is still a work in progress since it has something of a raw edge and the numerous vignettes do not comprise a complete, linear story with anything like a definite conclusion, though of course Mr Assange's story is itself still ongoing.

The play is divided into a large number of mostly short scenes. In some of them, we see Julian Assange talking with a WikiLeaks colleague or with his lawyers. President Obama makes numerous appearances in others, first having to fend-off David Cameron after referring to him as a 'lightweight' in a leaked document, and later as the irate head of state determined to prosecute Bradley Manning for leaking massive quantities of diplomatic cables. We also witness Manning being interrogated by US security services and meet up with Assange's mother and son.

Initially, the format seems a little jerky, especially as the scene changes do slow the pace down. Some of the scenes, at least in the first half, are deliberately flippant in order to show the insignificance of some of the material revealed by WikiLeaks, but these are fairly weak. However, as the play moves on towards the interval, things become both more serious and more interesting. The interrogation of Bradley Manning is brutally unnerving thanks to two compelling performances by Andrew Leung as Manning and Amy Marston as the interrogator. And when Assange is requested to 'call off the dogs' when PayPal is attacked by hackers, his fiery response reveals a man who knows his own weaknesses as well as his self-worth, describing himself as 'arrogant' and 'a true genius'.

Darren Weller provides an astonishing physical resemblance to Mr Assange, or 'the geek with a leak' as he is labelled in the play. However, the physical resemblance does not encapsulate Assange's strange boyishness, though Mr Weller manages to inject the characterisation with that quality. Mr Weller presents Assange as an arrogant, egotistical individual who at first seems rather detestable until we learn more about his nomadic background and complex personal life. Mr Weller is well-supported by an excellent cast - confidently directed by Lucy Skilbeck - who cope admirably with the numerous roles they have to cover.

At the end of the play, Assange struggles to find a definition for the 'truth' he so desperately wants to reveal to the world. Just how much of what we are told about the man is 'truth' is difficult to evaluate. Apparently, Mr Elisha found his sources in the public domain and 'redacted and refracted them' to form a 'Wikiplay'. That leaves the possibility of many gaping holes, of course, and also the possibility of some that have been filled with invention. But, in a sense, that really does not matter too much, given that this is a play based on a person's life, rather than being a factually accurate biography. Overall, it is intriguing and, at times, quite riveting. Well worth a visit.

(Peter Brown)

"Worth a wiki-look, I’d say, but this won’t be the last, or best, word on the matter."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph

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