Mike Bartlett is one of the most prolific and compelling writers to come out of the UK in the last decade. So often with his finger on the pulse of modern issues; from the housing crisis as seen through the eyes of reality television entertainment, to baby boomers gleefully spending their children’s inheritance, his subjects are never less than fascinating. In 2016, the Sydney Theatre Company staged his mesmerising King Charles III, a Shakespearean hypothesis on the future of the British monarchy and the MTC last put Bartlett’s words on stage in their 2014 production of Cock, the fascinating tale of a gay man who falls in love with a woman and the fight for identification that ensues. This time around, they’ve chosen the equally absorbing Wild, a paranoia inducing black comedy about a United States government whistle-blower that owes much to the real life story of Edward Snowden.
On the surface, this is a simple one-act affair set within a Moscow hotel room. Our Snowden avatar is Andrew (Nicholas Denton), a younger-than-he-looks US government employee who has stumbled across, and leaked, information that proves his employer has long been surveilling the American public in ways that are far more insidious than those seen anywhere else in the world. Seeking asylum with the Russians, Andrew is ‘handled’ by a woman (Anna Lise Phillips) and a man (Toby Schmitz) who separately and together execute mind games upon him that expose the precarious nature of individual privacy and safety after becoming an informant against your country.
While they portray themselves as working for Putin’s government, the authenticity of their status as Andrew’s potential protectors is difficult to tell for both him and us, as they twist their stories constantly. At one moment comfortingly telling him what he wants to hear, then jokingly threatening his life, the mysterious pair tear apart every bit of stability the young man’s intellect can construct, to leave him in a world turned literally on its head.
Nicholas Denton captures both the intelligence and naivety of Andrew, a moralistic young man suddenly caught wildly out of his depth and beyond the point of no return. As his potential saviours, Anna Lise Phillips and Toby Schmitz get the meaty fun of this script, written to allow for interpretation that can bring the utmost gravity to a scene, or take it high camp and then back again. Via Dean Bryant’s direction, both actors make the most of it. Phillips in particular creates delicious instability with her unhinged interpretation, peppered with perhaps a few too many knee-buckling moments, but delightfully funny and unnervingly scary. Schmitz meanwhile, is your more classic menacing government standover man, made unpredictable through wryly delivered humour.
Ultimately, Bartlett’s play seems to be making the point that in the interests of security we will all eventually lose control of our privacy. Whatever change Andrew planned to affect by leaking government information seems dwarfed by the self-sabotage he has wreaked upon his life. This is illustrated in spectacular fashion by some wizardry in Andrew Bailey’s set design, but it is deflated somewhat by some obvious ‘seams’ that signpost what is to come.
While Snowden’s story is roughly five years old now, thanks to the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal and its exposure of how much privacy – and potentially freedom – we have all already lost, the topicality of Wild is as fresh as when it was written, and will probably remain scary stuff for years to come.