'Stainless Steel Rat'

Wiki comes from the Hawaiian for "quick," and helmer Wayne Harrison was keen to get this "wikiplay," about the motivations of Wiki-leaks topper Julian Assange, to the stage faster than high-speed broadband.

Wiki comes from the Hawaiian for “quick,” and helmer Wayne Harrison was keen to get this “wikiplay,” about the motivations of Wiki-leaks topper Julian Assange, to the stage faster than high-speed broadband. But, as with the famous mass release of diplomatic cables at its center, you have to wade through a lot of irrelevant material before getting to something interesting, such as the odd insight into the man himself.

Play opens with a stylized sex scene purporting to portray the night with a Swedish cyber-groupie that has seen Assange arrested, but a director soon steps in, and the audience becomes aware this is a play-within-a-play and we’re on the set of a film about Assange.

This device — and the bickering of the once-married producer and director — adds little to the proceedings other than to give playwright Ron Elisha the freedom to work fast and loose with the facts. So, Aussie Prime Minister Julia Gillard becomes priggish schoolmarm, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev a mischievous troublemaker and — in the play’s most breathtakingly ridiculous moment — Barack Obama becomes a bullish loudmouth, played by a white actor (initially appearing in a black ski mask). The point seems to be to poke fun of whatever biopic may follow rather than try to illuminate this theater aud about what drives the white-blond Wikileaks boss.

As Assange, thesp Darren Weller appears almost at the halfway point, and his calm, magnetic portrayal is a welcome respite from the world leaders ripped from a newspaper cartoon, yet his sole purpose seems to be to provide clumsy exposition. This is a point made by the “film’s” producer in the play at one point, yet subsequent scenes continue in this vein, with Weller explaining how Wikileaks works but not exploring Assange’s motivations.

Vet thesp Peter Phelps has fun as the bombastic producer, and Valerie Bader draws a wry smile as the buttoned-up Aussie PM, while the rest of the cast get little room to show their chops playing one-note caricatures.

Act two is more serious and neatly outlines Assange’s current predicament — in prison in the U.K. fighting extradition — but does so with all the drama of a Wikipedia entry.

Harrison shows his skill at coordinating a small cast, almost all of whom do double duty, and some triple. But with the tone veering wildly from pathos to buffoonery, things feel out of control.

Harrison does get points for ripping his play from the headlines (it bowed in just four months), but his desire to be first means that many of the key dramatic elements came second. The Stainless Steel Rat of the title is an elusive character by sci-fi scribe Harry Harrison, of whom Assange is a fan, but what eludes Elisha and Harrison seems to be the central question of what they are trying to say.

Stainless Steel Rat

Seymour Center, Sydney; 534 seats; $A39 $59 top

Production

A Wayne Harrison's Cheep production of a play by Ron Elisha. Directed by Wayne Harrison.

Creative

Set design, Brian Thomson; costume design, Rita Carmody; lighting design, Martin Kinnane; sound design, Michael Wilkie and CODA Audio Services; production manager, Liz Goodyer; stage manager, Rosie Gilbert. Opened, reviewed June 30, 2011. Running time: 2 HOURS, 25 MIN.

Cast

Julian Assange - Darren Weller
A film producer - Peter Phelps
A film director - Caroline Craig
With: Valerie Bader, David Downer, Glenn Hazeldine, Marshall Napier, Katrina Retallick, Russell Smith.
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