Information is power in Mike Bartlett's Snowden-inspired thriller at MTC
It was Oscar Wilde who said the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about, and it’s a sentiment that lies at the heart of UK playwright Mike Bartlett’s new play Wild. In a world where social media likes and viral sharing hold real currency, where information is power, not being talked about is a kind of death. Of course, being talked about is no guarantee of safety either.
Bartlett takes the known facts of the Edward Snowden case as a dramatic template and then folds in a Julian Assange character as his Godot. US whistleblower Andrew (Nicholas Denton) has escaped to a Russian hotel room after the most mammoth info-dump of all time, and he’s alone and cut off. Although he’s not quite alone because there’s a woman (Anna Lise Phillips) with him, English and clipped and decidedly odd. She says her name is Miss Prism, first name George – in a direct reference to Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest – and claims to be working for “him”, he with the old locked-up-in-an-embassy vibe.
She offers Andrew a way out if he’ll join their outfit, although she prefers in the meantime to tease and torment him rather than elucidate what that might actually entail. It’s here that we get a sense of Bartlett’s love of wordplay, of the ways that language can veil as much as reveal and, while it’s a long way from the prismatic wit of Wilde, the banter is truly funny and alarming. Phillips is a scream as the blithely torturous George, deflating Andrew’s self-importance with her clowning before chilling him with indirect threats.
Once she leaves, and hours pass, another person walks through the door. This time it’s a man (Toby Schmitz) who also claims to be George, and claims to be working for the unnamed Assange figure. He knows nothing of the other George, although he tends to echo her sentiments and instructions. The key thing, he tells Andrew, is to trust no one – which by this stage is a bit of a no-brainer.
Director Dean Bryant handles the play’s precipitous sliding into surreality with a kind of gleeful candour. Schmitz takes up the jocular menace established by Phillips and gives his own slant to it; where she grins like a great white, he preens like an elegant bird of prey. Denton is the increasingly vulnerable man in the middle, and he navigates the shift in status beautifully. He’s our Alice, and we follow him willingly down that rabbit hole.
Technically, the production is a bit of a marvel. Opening on a nondescript hotel room framed by a wall of computer screens, it starts off rather prosaic but eventually gets very freaky indeed. The nightmares in this play are nightmares of perspective and scale, and Andrew Bailey’s set mirrors and amplifies the play’s trajectory. Sidney Millar’s sound design is magnificent, an exercise in restrained potency.
Wild is about trust, about the absurd and dangerous trust we place in the idea of authority, even when it’s blatantly clear that that authority (including banks, governments and conglomerates) has no interest in our welfare. There’s a vital necessity to the play, which the recent Facebook scandal only enforces. It’s tempting to see it as Pinteresque but actually it’s most reminiscent of Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay The Social Network. Both use intimate personal relationships as metaphors for the tectonic social implications arising from our relationship to technology. The play asks us to care, to at least participate in our own destruction. And perhaps – in our cynical, fake, avatar present – the unnamed man pulling the strings isn’t Assange at all but Oscar Wilde himself; perhaps Wild’s real call to arms is the vital importance of being earnest.