Entertainment & Arts

Who is Julian Assange?

Image caption Stainless Steel Rat is an outside-the-courtroom drama

Who is Julian Assange?

That nettlesome question - which has intrigued and perplexed since the founder of WikiLeaks first gained global prominence - lies at the heart of a play about his life which has just opened in Sydney.

Is he merely a geek with a flair for computer programming or the most consequential revolutionary Australian of our time? Or both?

In a theatre strewn with mock-ups of thousands of leaked classified documents, Stainless Steel Rat challenges the audience to decide for themselves.

The play tells the story through the lens of a band of fictional film-makers shooting a movie about Mr Assange's life.

It assembles a cast of characters that includes US President Barack Obama, Russian leader Dmitry Medvedev, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson.

Bradley Manning - the US soldier who is alleged to have passed tens of thousands of classified documents to Assange - is also featured.

Other characters include Mr Assange's mother, Christine, and his son, Daniel, both of whom live in Australia, the land of Mr Assange's birth.

Written by Melbourne playwright Ron Elisha, the play focuses on eight months of his life during which he is fighting extradition to Sweden, where he faces sexual assault allegations.

This is not a courtroom drama, but rather an outside-the-courtroom drama.

Platinum blond

From a cell in Wandsworth prison to the bedroom of the Australian prime minister in Canberra, it explores the motives of those determined to silence him and of those who view him as a champion of free speech and transparency.

Image caption Stainless Steel Rat runs at Sydney's York Theatre until 17 July

Assange is portrayed as a megalomaniac - paranoid, self-righteous, weirdly charismatic, angry, fragile and chronically vain.

When he discovers, for instance, that Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, has been selected as Time magazine's Person of the Year, he explodes.

Not lacking in self-confidence, he believes he is one of the most significant figures of the past 500 years.

"My life is about depriving government of its chief means to power," he says at one point in the play - and he clearly believes he has achieved that goal.

The play's star, Darren Weller, has dyed his hair platinum white in preparation, and says he is regularly mistaken in the street for Julian Assange.

He has also tried to capture the different shades of Assange's enigmatic personality, and many of the internal contradictions.

The play has been called rapid response theatre - an attempt to transfer a story from the headlines to the stage as quickly as possible.

What the play isn't is judgemental.

"What the playwright has done is present a whole range of factors or elements that make up Julian Assange - and you put it together yourself," says the director Wayne Harrison.

'"Most people, when they come to see the play, will be pro-him or anti-him in some way. And maybe we can alter that perception in some way, or reinforce it."

Perhaps the most powerful scenes in the play come in the sharp interchange between Assange and his lawyer Geoffrey Robertson.

Played out in a cell in Wandsworth prison, it becomes a duel in which Assange's digital fluency and hi-tech know-how are pitted against Robertson's erudition and droll humour.

Elusive figure

Theatre critics might have problems with the device that the playwright has deployed - the idea of actors playing actors, playing the main protagonists.

The play portrays Mr Obama in a very negative light and is merciless in its rendering of Julia Gillard, the Australian prime minister.

There are laughs aplenty and, in parts, the scripting is quite brilliant.

"This isn't Facebook," says this fictional Assange at one point.

"I'm not in the business of making friends."

In another exchange, Geoffrey Robertson notes: "In cyberspace, nobody can hear you leak."

Assange, meanwhile, remains an elusive figure with the script never quite managing to corner him.

Who is Julian Assange? This play provides many of the answers, but by no means all.

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