Wayne Harrison – Stainless Steel Rat

Stainless Steel Rat: A Wikiplay
Julian Assange takes centre stage at Seymour Centre

Who is Julian Assange? This is the central question posed in Stainless Steel Rat, a play set in 2010, when WikiLeaks exposed thousands of secret US government cables. The ensuing media frenzy turned Brisbane-born hactivist-turned-media-entrepreneur Julian Assange into an international celebrity, polarizing the world between those who love or hate him, support or oppose him.

Stainless Steel Rat is Australian playwright Ron Elisha’s fictionalized account of the WikiLeaks fiasco, and thought to be the world’s first ‘Wikiplay’. With talk of film rights being bought by Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks, director Wayne Harrison (former Artistic Director of the Sydney Theatre Company) was keen to get Assange’s enthralling story on stage before anyone else.

“It’s a very Australian thing to do – to shut up the authorities,” Harrison tells me on a break from his busy rehearsing schedule. “I liked the Ned Kelly anti-authority aspect to [Assange], as corny as that sounds. I was disappointed with the tawdry sex scandal. I didn’t want him to be flawed – but all the great leaders of revolutions are human, and have possible flaws.”

In the vein of One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights), Stainless Steel Rat is actually a story within a story – or a film within a play. It’s about a movie director creating a film based on Assange’s rise to fame, and features a cast of characters that includes US President Barack Obama; Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Prime Minister Julia Gillard, the Swedish women who accused Assange of sexual misconduct – and, of course, Assange himself.

Besides the politics, Elisha’s play is also a witty satire on current events and Assange’s background. The title Stainless Steel Rat is taken from the 1961 sci-fi spy novel written by Harry Harrison, which was a pseudonym used by Assange on dating website OkCupid. “We also use the idea of a rat because the world has become so sophisticated that a rat has to be particularly cunning,” Harrison explains. “Stainless steel is an armour reference and people see Julian Assange as a knight in shining armour (which is the way I see him). But then there’s also that idea of trickery.”

32-year-old actor Darren Weller will be playing the first-ever fictionalized portrayal of Assange – and while his physical transformation is quite remarkable, Weller has been spending his evenings meticulously studying the nuances of Assange’s speech patterns.

Harrison, meanwhile, has been preparing for Stainless Steel Rat on the back of successful New York and Las Vegas runs of his Spiegelworld show Absinthe – not to mention the Sydney Opera House season of Nora Ephron’s Love, Loss and What I Wore. Stainless Steel Rat is an opportunity for this seasoned director to tackle more topical material.

“It’s essentially a comedy with dual storylines that allows you to play with ironies,” says Harrison. “I’ve always liked the idea of theatre as a way to discuss contemporary issues and provoke people so they don’t forget about it as soon as they leave. [Stainless Steel Rat] asks what truth is in the age of new technology. Theatre is of the moment and is engaged in a dialogue with society. The Julian Assange story is always evolving and it’s exciting to be part of the storytelling.”

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