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Theatre in Review: Cuckooed (59E59)

Mark Thomas. Photo: Richard Davenport

A strange tale of personal betrayal is brought to light in Cuckooed. Mark Thomas, the piece's writer and star, is a British standup comic, documentarian, prankster, and social activist -- a kind of UK version of Michael Moore. Cuckooed tracks his involvement with CAAT (Campaign Against Arms Trade), an effort that made good use of his taste for showmanship. For example, he showed up at a London arms fair with a bus, announcing that he was providing free shuttle service; having loaded it up with a full complement of international arms traders, all happy to get a free lift, he took up a collection to erase Iraq's war debt. (He raised a little more than ten pounds.) The next day, he chained himself to the undercarriage of the vehicle, only to be joined by a thrill-seeking colleague. The latter is a moment that combines social activism with slapstick; finding it nearly impossible to fit the chain's lock around his neck, he mutters about his fellow activists, "No wonder so many of this lot are vegans....You never see a fat boy dangling on a Greenpeace abseil."

Thomas took part in such activities with a closely knit group of associates, many of whom he introduces through a series of video screens that pop out of the file cabinets on Tim McQuillen-Wright's set. (These video testimonies, courtesy of the audio-visual designer, Duncan McLean, go a long way toward making a one-sided story seem convincing.) Among the crowd of like-minded souls was Martin, who, Thomas notes, became a close personal friend. For example, when Thomas was thrown into jail, Martin, impersonating his lawyer, brought him books to read. (One of Thomas' helpful hints: Always bring a book to a demonstration; if you get arrested, you won't be bored sitting around in jail.) Martin also collected Thomas upon his release and delivered him to the nearest pub.

Therefore, it was all the more galling when Ann, the head of CAAT, announced that Martin was an agent hired to spy on them by BAE Systems, the British munitions maker. Martin was quickly dropped by everyone in the movement, except for Thomas and Gid, another friend. Because of his loyalty, Thomas' ties to CAAT and his circle of friends were severely strained. Despite urgings that he read the dossier on Martin that had been collected, Thomas refused to so do for nearly a year. When he finally did, the evidence was shattering: For several years, Martin had been forwarding hundreds of emails filled with information about CAAT to a private security firm connected to a former head of MI6. According to Thomas, Martin's explanation was merely a mistake.

The rest of Cuckooed follows Thomas' downward spiral as he tries to understand his former friend's duplicity. Spurred by anger, he launches a series of stings against arms manufacturers, getting a half a dozen or so of them put out business. Even so, he knows such accomplishments are minor; further, they do nothing to cool his obsession with Martin -- who, to this day, we are told, denies the charges against him. He finally traps Martin in public with a video camera -- although in the version we see Martin's head is blurred and the soundtrack is removed -- but achieves no real resolution. (In case you were wondering, Martin's privacy is preserved; we are never given his last name.) He finally gets an agreement from Martin to meet in person and discuss the charges -- but Martin pulls out at the last minute, sending a message that no good can come from rehashing the past.

Cuckooed shines a fascinating light on the world of British political activism, especially in the aforementioned video testimonies, and, as rendered here, Thomas' hurt and confusion are made vividly real: You feel for him as he struggles to understand how Martin could have hoodwinked him for so long. Still, it's hard not to feel that we're getting only a small portion of the story, and the more we hear about Martin, the more fascinating he becomes, at the expense of everyone else in the script. Assuming that he did betray Thomas and the others -- and, based on the evidence presented, it's hard to deny -- how is it that he continues to live with his wife in a squalid, tumbledown house? If there was no big financial payday, why did he do it? And how is it that he continues to work, for little or no money, as a union organizer?

More questions surface: Did the members of CAAT not spread the word of Martin's betrayal to other organizations? Thomas and his colleagues often use litigation to press a case: Did they never file suit against him, at least as a way of exposing BAE's involvement? And most nagging of all: How did Martin manage to get close to Thomas and company, sustaining such close friendships over years while giving away all their secrets? Martin comes to seem like a character worthy of John le Carré. Unfortunately, he remains offstage for most of the running time of Cuckooed.

Under Emma Callander's direction, Thomas makes a fascinating host, even if his obvious anger tends to overrule his attempts at wit. The rest of the production, including Kate Bonney's lighting and Helen Atkinson's sound, are totally solid. (It's unclear why Thomas needs a headset mic in the smallish Theatre B at 59E59, but there you are.) And, even in a less-than-satisfying version, Cuckooed provides plenty of food for thought. It ends with a video montage of activists who have been under government surveillance, sometimes for years. Thomas, concluding the piece on a chilling note, says that if this sort of thing is rampant in his country, how bad must it be here in the US? -- David Barbour

(5 November 2015)

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