One of the more trite things we say about art is that it is more real than reality, truer than the truth. But what happens when truth is its very theme yet its subject is one about which we do not and perhaps cannot know that truth? Ron Elisha comes at it from both directions in Man in the Middle, his version (formerly known as Stainless Steel Rat) of the Julian Assange/Wikileaks affair.
At times (for much of the first act, though not always intentionally) Elisha resorts to cartooning. Assange himself is the only character unambiguously identified by name, but almost all the others are readily identifiable, including David Cameron, Barack Obama, Bradley Manning, Mark Zuckerberg and, in one scene, even husband and wife Geoffrey Robertson QC and Kathy Lette. And, in order to accommodate so many characters in a cast of eight (only fellow Queenslander Darren Weller as Assange does not take multiple roles), portrayals have to be broad-brush.
There are German and Russian accents you could cut with a knife, an excessively hawkish Obama (with a southern drawl, to boot), an ulster-wearing lawyer and so on. But although we can put names to these figures, we do not necessarily know what they are like. This is crucially so in the case of Assange, which means that the fundamental nature of caricature – that it works by exaggerating familiar characteristics – is at sea here.
And when it grows serious, Elisha’s script by and large goes plonk. Some 30 seconds into the play, Assange’s sometime Wikileaks colleague Daniel Domscheit-Berg admonishes, “We’re journalists, Julian, we’re supposed to be dispassionate”, which sets the tone for a couple of hours more of sporadic sententiousness. For every sharp line (mostly uttered either by Assange or Robertson), there are several that one feels have been typed with a lot of Initial Capital Letters. Twice in the closing minutes Assange is given a “What Is Truth?” riff that would leave Pontius Pilate open-mouthed.
In Lucy Skilbeck’s production the play is an effective whistle-stop tour of the past couple of years of events, but it tells us nothing new (except the perspective of Assange’s estranged, grown-up son Daniel, played by Andrew Leung) and it shows us nothing reliable which – rather than being conceptually fitting – is fatal.