Sumner Theatre, Melbourne
May 10, 2018
Mike Bartlett’s Wild premiered in London in 2016, three years after the Edward Snowden affair that it’s very openly inspired by. Two years on, this MTC production arrives in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica-Facebook scandal, making this play’s darkly comic exploration of freedom and authority in a world of mass digital surveillance as topical as ever. It’s a clever dialogue-driven three-hander that’s finely executed, not least because of the denouement’s coup de théâtre.
Nicholas Denton, Toby Schmitz and Anna Lise Phillips. Photo © Jeff Busby
The scene is a Moscow hotel room, where young American whistleblower Andrew is visited by a woman who seems to be offering support on behalf of Wikileaks. She calls herself Miss Prism, a nod to both the NSA surveillance program Snowden revealed, and Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. There’s a Wildean conversational wit about Bartlett’s script – the kind one yearns to read afterwards – but its title probably isn’t a reference to the great playwright so much as the wild ride Andrew has embarked on.
Static though the play is for nearly all its 90 minutes, word by word, idea by idea, it becomes clear to the whistleblower, and the audience, that he’s on a rollercoaster about to make a perilous dive. He has effected the most dramatic data dump in history, but by revealing the extent of surveillance, he has made himself a prime target of its very active capabilities. Andrew is in a foreign land without a passport, funds or means of communication – the room’s phone isn’t connected and his devices have been seized by Miss Prism’s enigmatic organisation, so he can’t be tracked, she says. He is friendless, unless this woman, who won’t even reveal her real name, can help. Or perhaps the man, probably not called George, who later appears. He casts further doubt on the trustworthiness of ‘Miss Prism’, while also suggesting he may be an assassin.
Nicholas Denton and Anna Lise Phillips. Photo © Jeff Busby
It’s a Kafkaesque thriller of the mind, directed by Dean Bryant at a pace that allows just enough time to grasp the steady flow of its weighty words. Their meaning is intriguing, as is the off-kilter comedy scattered across this three-way conversation’s darkly profound base. As the so-called Miss Prism, Anna Lise Phillips delivers most of the uneasy giggles. With the poise and perfect accent of a hyper-intelligent London power broker, she nails the silly-jolly remarks and physical ticks of someone trying to put a troubled young man at ease, while deftly hinting at more sinister manipulations.
Dialect coach Geraldine Cook-Dafner and costume designer Owen Phillips also perfectly package Englishman ‘George’, played by Toby Schmitz with an imposing confidence and occasional dry wit reminiscent of Benedict Cumberbatch’s dangerous edginess. As their apparent plaything Andrew, Nicholas Denton is also pitch perfect as the serious, high-minded but naive geek, barely holding together a loose-limbed, middle-American accented ease.
Nicholas Denton. Photo © Jeff Busby
Andrew Bailey’s set is a functional space surrounded by a large proscenium arch, which lights up with a montage of grainy grey video-chat screens between scenes. (Are all these silent talking heads Caucasian for a reason, or just a lack of imagination?) Ultimately, this set turns out to be an extraordinary visual, technical and psychological triumph – saying more would spoil its mind-bending impact.
Wild is a marvellous showcase of how theatre, through the persuasive power of performance, words and design, can tackle today’s complex ideas and problems, and provide perspective that otherwise may only come with time. As Bartlett suggests, waiting to understand this period through history books may be a luxury we can’t afford.
Melbourne Theatre Company’s Wild is at the Sumner Theatre until June 9.