The United Kingdom’s leading comedian Mark Thomas pulls out all the stops in Cuckooed directed by Emma Callander. The production, which he’s written and is currently performing at 59E59 Theaters until November 21, is based on true events that occurred during his activism with Campaign Against the Arms Trade. This interactive media show with his live solo performance is a revelation, with immense scope and power. Its themes reverberate today. Their currency is dynamic and terrifying.
Thomas portrays himself throughout the production. He is sardonic, funny, prophetic, mesmerizing and profound. His account has the relevance of court testimony, and is the tip of the iceberg of his experience battling political corruption, fraud, corporate malfeasance and more.
Thomas has elevated dissent to a sparkling combination of artistry and effectiveness. His resume of protest reads like a Who’s Who of “Important People Who Have Made a Difference.” In the worlds of stand-up, theater, and journalism which he has finely networked in this amazing production, he is a star.
To give you an example of his effectiveness, he is noted for “changing the law on tax avoidance bringing in £1,000,000 for HMRC” (the UK equivalent of the US IRS). To an overweening, bloated, complacent, politician-in-their-pocket corporation, Mark Thomas is a nightmare, a wormy obstruction, a blight on corporate income disparity, an enemy to oligarchies.
The corporate universe at war with individuals like Mark Thomas likes to follow the dictum, “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.” As Thomas retells his story of what happened in the past decade during his involvement with CAAT (Campaign Against the Arms Trade), he shows how this tenet was employed by BAE Systems (the leading weapons/arms/defense manufacturer in the UK), which intended to keep a spotlight on CAAT in a brilliant act of co-optation without the activists even suspecting its intentions. The company used spies to infiltrate the group.
As the lights dim, our attention is drawn to a screen projecting military devices, a battleship, and military planes manufactured by BAE. Thomas introduces himself with a resonant statement that serves as a chief weapon of the activist community, which is forced to use subterfuge as the corporate community uses it: Thomas states that he is a good liar. He solicits our attention with this enigmatic comment and we are ready to sift his story. Is he lying?
Thomas perplexes when he states that everything he will discuss in the next hour is true with the exception of a number he gives out. It is a clever introduction to who he is and how activists are forced to contrive to combat corporate hegemony. It is also a preparation for the revelations of truth which are so heart-breaking and real. As one who uses lies as a weapon against corporate amoralists, will he be able to discern who is lying to him, especially if a spy is working in the same trenches as the activists who put their lives on the line?
Thomas threads these themes of mendacity, subterfuge and authenticity throughout the production. He begins by reading a letter to Martin, his close friend and Campaign Coordinator for CAAT, in which he wishes Martin well and asks to meet with him because he is unclear about their seven-year relationship and hopes to learn Martin’s intentions as a loyal friend and fellow activist. The letter appears to be a truthful admission, but we are forewarned.
Thomas quickly changes the pace by discussing an example of his own mendacious tactics. He describes an extremely funny event CAAT initiated to herd unsuspecting arms dealers onto a shuttle bus service to take them to an arms fair. CAAT’s true intention is to embarrass the dealers. As the bus moves closer to the arms fair, it is prevented from entering, lacking the proper permits to drive through the cordon of police security the arms dealers demanded to avoid dealing with protesters.
Without proper bus permits (a clever, humorous move on CAAT’s part), the dealers are forced to get out and walk, humiliated, for a mile as activists call them out with placards and chants against the brutalities in which the dealers are complicit.
Thomas’s discussion of events like this reveals the power and humor of his activism, and the nature of the duplicity he and CAAT members use to show weapons dealers the public outcry against them.
During such events he and CAAT members appreciate the support and camaraderie of campaign coordinator Martin, and he gives an example of Martin’s friendship. When Thomas chains his neck to the undercarriage of a bus servicing BAE systems dealers, and protesters surround and stop the bus, Thomas is arrested. The protest works. Instead of going to the arms fair, BAE systems dealers go back to the hotel “traumatized.” But it is lonely being arrested for “putting one’s neck out” to traumatize dealers who enjoy profits gained by legalized murder. None of the other CAAT dissenters comes to meet Thomas at the jail, except Martin.
Thomas quickens the pace and spins our attention to the testimony of fellow activists (delivered digitally via video stored on laptops), who discuss Martin’s humor, support, charm and role as coordinator. There is testimony by various people who knew and trusted Martin and witnessed his efforts to undermine corporations. Thomas includes their testimony to indicate the extent to which Martin was a lying genius.
Yet, if one liar cannot discern another liar, then the movement is compromised, as CAAT was by Martin’s amazingly effective spying. Thomas’ revelations of Martin’s betrayal are intriguing and shocking, as is what happens when Thomas eventually confronts Martin.
The tone throughout the production is sardonic and at times outright funny. However, the darkness of discovering that a friend is a traitor is palpable and the audience empathizes. Because of Martin’s betrayal, we understand that corporations use spying against activist groups. With this evidence, Thomas proves the extent to which arms manufacturers will go to insure they and their cohorts in financial institutions maintain their power and profitability.
That message staggers one’s intellect and confounds one’s spirit of ethics and goodness because this is accomplished regardless of the growing mountain of human flesh and blood killed by arms. The average middle-class person is not operating in the same sphere of ethics as these arms dealers, or other corporations for that matter. That revelation is shocking.
By the end of Thomas’ revelations we understand that these corporations are selling arms and military supplies to nations around the globe regardless of those nations’ geopolitical leanings. These are corporations without a country, without borders; they are their own nation-states. They are dealing in arms despite their alleged loyalty to peace-promoting organizations and their varied alliances with nations in the East and the West. Indeed, one understands why they attempt to avoid paying taxes to any nation. If they are their own nation-states they can operate with impunity with the support of their political allies.
Thomas also underscores that corporations are probably willing to pay tremendous amounts for spies, which is nevertheless a cost-effective counter-move against activists. By keeping corporate enemies close, they know how to effect dodging tactics and foment PR campaigns that make activists appear like wackos, while making the corporations appear victims who are only job creators.
As Thomas reveals by his own emotional response to his close friend’s betrayal, it is important for corporations to break the morale of activists. It helps to destroy them psychologically and emotionally (to physically kill and martyr activists would strengthen the movement).
This kind of spying and morale-destroying is not employed only by defense corporations. Thomas also discloses the blacklisting that occurs against trade unionists, and spying by police who are hired by construction corporations in the UK.
The questions Thomas’ production asks are many. How many other types of corporations employ spies to co-opt activist groups? Thomas provides evidence that this happens in the UK. (BAE Systems admitted culpability). Does it also happen in the U.S.?
Money is power, profitability is more power, and with these, politicians are bought. The cycle is continued because bought politicians become power brokers for corporations. In Cukooed, Thomas reveals how he was duped and betrayed and intimates that like activists, the average person is being duped by corporations and their spies.
What is important to note is that corporations are so frightened of activism’s power against their bottom line, they must keep their enemies closer than their friends, the politicians they have bought. It is an incredible irony which should give every activist, every dissenter against corporate hegemony hope, though it is hope with a watchful, wary eye.
Through this betrayal, Thomas himself is subject to a criticism. To what extent did he allow himself to be “cukooed” by Martin? For us the theme is clear: To what extent is it comforting to be in denial and not see what is happening around us despite the signs? A theme Thomas’ performance suggests is that we must try to understand what is happening. If it happened and is happening in the UK, it most probably is happening in the U.S. How are we being “cukooed?”
At the end Thomas presents a call to action: “What are you going to do about this?” The question rings in the air as the audience leaves. These are heavy words from one who has dedicated himself to the comedy and drama of “making a difference.” It is a truth so devastating that one is loathe to believe it, yet underneath we know it is so.