Stainless Steel Rat by Ron Elisha, The Seymour Centre, Sydney University, June 28th 2011
(Links to other reviews at bottom of page)
I left Ron Elisha’s play Stainless Steel Rat with a foul taste in my mouth. The taste of the Arts equivalent of rat piss, but not of the stainless kind.
I have been following the WikiLeaks story and that of Julian Assange reasonably closely since about January this year (2011). While not a source of information myself, I feel that, after somewhere between one and two thousand hours’ online research, listening to Julian’s interviews, his speeches, that of many independent commentators, and looking at the WikiLeaks site itself, reading the essays, the leaks, the news articles, the independent and “Mainstream Media” angles on it all, that I have at least the nuts and bolts of the matter down pat, if not necessarily in full detail or depth. But I have an idea of what it is that Julian and WikiLeaks stand for, and what they do not, both officially and unofficially.
I am not alone in this. I know a reasonable number of people who have been similarly addicted to trying to get as much information as possible on what has become the lever for a global ‘quantum leap’ away from the bizarre Orwellian world of “national security” and other fascist double-speak into which we were steered by the gibbering lunatics in positions of power during the first decade of this century. Aside from the people I know personally, this subject has captured the attention of many millions of Australians. Each WikiLeaks-themed event (each a relatively mainstream bourgeois “establishment” affair) held in Sydney so far during 2011:
Sydney Peace Foundation “WikiLeaks and Freedom” forum Sydney Town Hall on March 16th;
Both “Wikileaks and the Challenge of Journalism”, Sydney Writer’s Festival, and “True Blue Assange” Sydney Writer’s Festival, on May 19th;
“Who’s Afraid of WikiLeaks” forum for Sydney Writer’s Festival, Sydney Town Hall May 20th;
IQ2OZ debate “WikiLeaks is a Force for Good” at Sydney Recital Centre on June 16th;
…to mention the main ones, has enjoyed a capacity, near-capacity, or overflowing audience. Rich pickings, potentially, if you are desperate to bask in the attention for all the wrong reasons.
The sort of information the many thousands of attendees have sought at these generally electrifying events has not been how often Julian bathes, his bedside manner, whether his son gets on with his mother Christine, whether he argues with his legal team or not. Spend five minutes listening to Julian’s Oslo Freedom Forum speech from last year or read his interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist and you’ll understand what it is that has struck such a nerve.
Sadly it doesn’t seem that Ron Elisha has had any of this in mind. Had he bothered to research his audience, let alone his subject, neither of which he apparently did, he might have found that the platform afforded by the unprecedented public profile which Julian and WikiLeaks has rapidly attained, not to mention the spirit of hope which he has captured in the hearts and minds of many millions of hopeful citizens worldwide not just in Australia, he might have realised that not only is this Queenslander genuinely at the centre of a pivotal moment in world history, but that the story that might be told could be an empowering, dignified thing.
Instead what we saw on Tuesday night was two and a half hours, sans interval, of a rushed, opportunistic, sensationalist, parasitic ride on WikiLeaks’ hard-won fame with zero grasp of the issue or respect for ANYONE involved, just degrading cartoons set within the device of an extended porn shoot. The “climax” (or nadir) of the show was an imaginary shouting match between Julian and his British lawyer Mark Stephens CBE, followed by a 50 year old pornographer rooting a teenager up the arse, neither of which character or event is ever explained or justified.
Another damning low point was the Assange character faithfully repeating Guardian journalist David Leigh’s libellous statement that Assange once said of Afghani informants to the US “they’re informants, they deserve to die”, as though it was an actual Assange quote. Julian has vehemently denied this repeatedly and has planned legal action against Leigh for libel. But the nadir for me personally - if the rest isn’t vile enough - was the brutal treatment of Julian’s immediate family. His mother Christine was venomously portrayed as a complete imbecile, attempting vainly to co-opt his son Daniel, portrayed as a broken-hearted loser, into supporting Julian, and failing, through a hand-puppet show at the foot of his bed. These are people who presently risk losing a son and father to extradition into the legal and ethical black hole of the American military court system.
In the announcement before the play began, it was said that “we wanted to get this on the stage as quickly as possible, before we got run over by WikiLeaks the Broadway Musical or something like that”, and this definitively opportunistic goal was certainly achieved. It is clear that nobody gains from this stinking jewel of misinformation, toxic parody and cynical caricature except the egos of those who “wanted to be first” to ride on WikiLeaks’ fame whilst at the same time poisoning the well. The endless biting piss-take, the toxic cartoon, is the medium of the inferior kind of artist, the one who seeks their natural level in the sewers of the human spirit for the purposes of a cheap shock, a dirty smirk.
The foregoing should be tempered by reflecting on the actors, all of whom did a very good job with the material they were given. Valerie Bader’s rendition of Julia Gillard deserves particular note, as do the efforts of Daniel Weller, who played Julian Assange.
A really good opportunity for a worthy piece of drama was not only missed, it was pissed on. Even the title, although related to Assange’s cypherpunk past, was taken verbatim from the title of the extremely successful Harry Harrison sci-fi work (see Harrison’s response here - “These guys are ripoff artists. I’d have them in jail if I could. I’m trying.”).
Don’t see it, it’s shit.