Is Wikileaks a bastion of truth or a threat to national security? Is Julian Assange the new face of journalism or a trumped-up blogger? Is he the hero or the villain of his own story?
The founder of the whistle-blowing website’s life has the makings of a great play, from his unlikely rise to power, the hubris that followed and his inevitable fall from grace. There is scandal, sex and a more than whiff of conspiracy.
Man in the Middle, though, is not that play. It is extensively re-written from a version performed in Australia, losing the snappy title Stainless Steel Rat (the name of the hero of Harry Harrison’s science fiction novels – a reference to rats in modern concrete jungles needing to be particularly hardy to survive; a far better name for a play).
Ron Elisha’s script veers wildly from comedy to melodrama and does neither particularly well. Australian actor Darren Weller’s Assange is shackled, too often sidelined by a series of increasingly crude caricatures; an obnoxious Barack Obama who inexplicably speaks in a Civil War-era Deep South drawl; David Cameron as a loathsome wimp; Mark Zuckerberg as a snotty teenager.
Elisha tries to show how Assange’s influence has rippled across global politics but the constant scene shifting (and role swapping by the eight actors) dilutes the main thrust of the play. The director’s notes probably read “frenetic” but “messy” would be a better description.
The final 20 minutes see Weller take centre stage and a glimpse of the play this could have been shines through. He is Assange – the basilisk stare, the unwavering, narcissistic self belief. In a scene set in his cell he roars: “I am Julian Assange” – and you believe him.
But moments like this are lost in a sea of mediocrity. Elisha has called Man in the Middle a “wiki-play”. If he means it takes liberties with the truth and isn’t very well written, he’s hit the nail on the head.
First published in City A.M.