Written & performed by Mark Thomas
Directed by Emma Callander
Impishly reversing the famous slogan “speak truth to power”, British comedian-anarchist Mark Thomas has had remarkable success in tricking the powerful into making startlingly self-incriminating confessions on camera. He’s doesn’t stop there. Targeting major players in the shadowy world of the military-industrial complex, he has taken part in numerous demonstrations, peace campaigns and speak-outs. Of course, the powerful have ways of hitting back, and as Thomas discloses in his impassioned new one man show, the results can be devastating.
In an energetic style somewhat reminiscent of Alexei Sayle, Thomas recalls his involvement with the activist group Campaign Against Arms Trade. Designed to foster peace by stymieing large weapons interests, CAAT is largely composed of idealistic students and straight-laced Quakers. It’s therefore a breath of fresh air to have someone with a big personality like Martin Hogbin join the team (Thomas scrupulously leaves out the last name, but it’s easy enough to find on the internet). Raw, working class, funny and outspoken, the charismatic Martin becomes a great friend to Mark and other members of the group, and a father figure to the younger recruits. They all grow to trust and love Martin, and he’s the last person anyone would suspect of treachery.
Yet in 2003, a Sunday Times article reveals that the defense company BAE Systems has been running a spy network through a third party. It seems odd that Europe’s largest arms dealer would expend its resources on a small group of studious peaceniks. But CAAT has undeniable evidence that confidential documents have been leaked. In an unusual court decision, BAE admits to having hired an operative to infiltrate the group, and officially promises to desist. This is a bittersweet victory for Mark and company. It’s great that BAE’s public disgrace brings media attention to the evils of the arms trade. It’s not so good for morale. Once the tight-knit CAAT crew knows there is a spy in their midst, things can never be the same– especially when the paper trail leads, unambiguously, to Martin.
Like all artists, a devastated Thomas turns to his work to try and make sense of it all. He talks to many of his colleagues (excerpts from filmed interviews are interspersed throughout the show), and writes down his own recollections of events. A visit to Martin’s home reveals that he’s hardly living in luxury. So if money wasn’t the motivator, what did BAE have on him? Thomas is, to his credit, impeccably fair to Martin, offering repeatedly to let him tell his side of the story. Alas, Hogbin ultimately decides to keep mum. Someone seems to have gotten to him yet again.
It would be comforting to dismiss this story as the paranoid rant of a conspiracy theorist. Sadly, the documentation is incontrovertible, and Thomas goes on to show us interviews with construction workers, teachers, and other ordinary people who have similarly been targets of illegal surveillance, harassment and blacklisting because of their political beliefs.
The show’s core narrative, a kind of loss-of-innocence story, gives the show an emotional spine that makes it a true theater piece rather than just an evening of politically-oriented standup. If it’s intended as a call to action, though, CUCKOOED is not entirely successful. Thomas does not paint a rosy picture of an activist’s life, nor does he attempt to flatter the audience with the good news that we can make the world a better place. He does, however, provide an honest, and ultimately moving glimpse of life in the trenches.
CUCKOOED continues through November 21 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 E 59th St, New York, NY 10022 (212) 753-5959