In September 2011, Julian Assange's unofficial autobiography was published. It told of his nomadic childhood in Australia, his account of the events leading up to the sexual assault allegations that he faces in Sweden, and his struggle to launch the whistle-blowing website, WikiLeaks. He says he spent months going to board meetings with an attendance of one (himself), in a "hot poky flat in Paris", unshaven and unkempt apart from, "wearing exactly the right sort of jacket".
The problem with the autobiography was that it was unofficial; Assange wasn't happy with the version that went to print. Which begs the question, if the man himself is dissatisfied with the re-telling of his own life story, how can anyone else manage to tell it well? A new play, opening this week, attempts to tackle the ambitious task.
Man in the Middle is about about Assange's life. It's written by the award-winning Australian playwright Ron Elisha, (who is a GP by day), and put together using news, videos and articles about Assange's life. "I don't think that anybody is the most reliable source of their own story" said Lucy Skilbeck, the play's director, "the play is built on events and facts that we know to have happened. We then refract those events through our own lens as theatre makers, and uncover things in a dramatic context."
Man in the Middle originally premiered under the title Stainless Steel Rat in Sydney earlier this year. It refers to the title of a 1961 science-fiction spy novel by Harry Harrison, whose name Assange used as his pseudonym for a dating website. Man in the Middle was the subtitle in Australia and is a motif within the play. "In many ways he is caught in the middle," said Skilbeck. "Partly that's to do with the computer technology but he is also the man in the middle of the Swedish allegations and the political Maelstrom that has erupted in the world." He also emerges in the play in the middle of the action and people's demands.
Since its Australian premiere, the play has been re-worked to include more recent events in Assange's life. The focus is on last year, when WikiLeaks released thousands of secret government cables, and Assange was accused of sexually assaulting two women in Sweden, but was being updated as recently as last week. "It's been restructured and we've brought it up to date which is why we've called it a 'wikiplay' — wiki meaning quick," said Skilbeck.
The play now includes the recent allegation that Assange may have collaborated with an Army specialist named Bradley Manning in stealing thousands of documents from classified US computer systems and publishing them online. The play will continue to change during the run if any more real-life stories that emerge, Skilbeck said.
The scenes encourage the audience to question how much of the information in the public domain is factual. It also examines Assange's life in Australia as a hacker. Some scenes take place inside Assange's prison cell and others in the Australian prime minister's bedroom in Canberra. The characters include several politicians, including the Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, Barack Obama and David Cameron.
Man in the Middle poses questions about whether or not WikiLeaks' whistle-blowing is a force for good and similarly, whether its founder is a pioneer of transparency, just a hacker with an overinflated ego or a bit of both. "We find it much easier when our idealists are also virtuous," said Skilbeck, "but it's much more human and common that people's flaws make it hard to see the simplicity and beauty of their ideals."
Man in the Middle is at Theatre 503, London SW11 (020 7978 7040; www.theatre503.com) 10 January – 4 February, 7.45pm (Sundays at 5pm).Tickets: £14 (£9 concessions).