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Mark Thomas takes on betrayal in the age of big data.

Mark Thomas stars in his one-man show, Cuckooed, directed by Emma Callander, at 59E59 Theatres.
(© Richard Davenport)

I dreaded Mark Thomas' Cuckooed, now making its U.S. debut at 59E59 Theatres. A one-man spy thriller by an anti-arms trade activist, I expected this show to be a lecture on the surveillance state and its relationship to the military-industrial complex. It's not that these aren't tremendously important subjects, but they are too often presented on a formal spectrum between academic pedantry and firebrand evangelism. Thankfully, Thomas is neither a pedagogue nor a preacher, but an amiable comedian asking some very important questions: Does possessing heaps of cash and an army of lawyers allow you to break the law? What is trust? What amount of government and corporate spying can we as a society tolerate? These questions would certainly be heard a lot more often in the halls of power if more activists delivered their message as humorously and imaginatively as Thomas does here.

An author and television presenter, Thomas is well-known in the U.K. for his creative approach to activism. He once famously exposed the abuse of a loophole that allowed Britons to avoid paying inheritance tax on heirlooms, provided they offered them for public viewing, by scheduling hundreds of visits to a mahogany buffet inherited by Conservative MP (and grandson of Winston Churchill) Nicholas Soames. Soames eventually paid the tax rather than accommodate unwashed gawkers in his dining room.

Thomas shines when recounting similar exploits relating to the arms trade in Cuckooed, like the time he set up a fake public relations firm and convinced an Indonesian general to admit to human rights abuses during an on-camera "media training." This synthesis of performance art and investigative journalism will likely appeal to many theatergoers. Still, one has to question the ethics of employing deception in a quest for the truth.

"I am a very good liar," Thomas admits in the first line of the show, before hastily adding, "but everything I tell you in the next hour is true." Individual audience members will have to decide the veracity of that statement, but the personal manner in which he shares his story, as if he were telling you over the dinner table, makes you want to believe him. In fact, one feels the urge to raise a glass and down a pint in celebration of his little victories against unscrupulous arms dealers and the lackadaisical regulatory agencies that too often turn a blind eye to their malfeasance.

Brimming with anecdotes from Thomas' storied career, the main event of Cuckooed concerns Martin, a fellow activist for the NGO Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) who was implicated as a spy for BAE Systems, Britain's biggest defense contractor. While ostensibly the loudest guy on the front line of every protest, he was actually forwarding the organization's private emails to an opposition research firm that was then selling them on to BAE Systems.

Thomas charts his reaction to this betrayal, from disbelief to anger to confusion. "If Martin was working for BAE Systems he doesn't seem to have been well paid," he says after describing the shabby conditions in which Martin was living after he was expelled from CAAT. Was he just a cog in the machine, selling his labor (in this case, as a spy) to the highest bidder in order to pay the bills? Unfortunately, we don't receive a satisfying answer to that question: Martin never agreed to speak with Thomas for this show, so his motivations remain somewhat of a mystery, giving Cuckooed the feeling of a work in progress. Even though all of this happened over a decade ago, the wounds still seem fresh.

Mark Thomas interacts with Duncan McLean's audiovisual design in Cuckooed.
(© Richard Davenport)

In order to shed some light, director Emma Callander offers video interviews with the other activists who worked with Martin, describing what he was like as a campaigner and friend. Flat-screens roll out of unexpected places on Tim McQuillen-Wright's spare yet evocative set. Audiovisual designer Duncan McLean smartly presents these as live conversations with Thomas, and they're so well-timed that it actually works. Thomas often plays the role of Martin's defender in these exchanges. His consistent willingness to give his old friend the benefit of the doubt also proves to us his common decency. He observes, "It's hard to know who the villain is when there are no regulations controlling these companies and people who do this work."

One hopes that the law will eventually catch up to our brave new world of data, in which any online activity can be captured, sold, and endlessly resold to hungry data-mining agencies. Chilling as its subject matter may be, Cuckooed is surprisingly warm and full of heart.