Aidan Killian is not the kind of performer to shy away from big questions. This August he is back in Edinburgh with a stand-up show-cum-sermon, centring on the actions of Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden.
One thing you cannot deny about Killian is his earnestness.
The show’s title should set off alarm bells for anyone familiar with the arguments around surveillance and civil liberties more generally. ‘Holy Trinity’ suggests a sort of noxious elevation of individuals to figures of worship and, sure enough, Killian does just this.
First up for discussion is Wikileaks founder and hacker Julian Assange. Killian’s argument about the Australian seems to be based on the sexual allegations arising from his time in Sweden and the integrity of the prosecution process. Because of Assange’s role in exposing classified documents and providing an avenue for others to do the same, the accusations against him, Killian argues, must be bogus and fabricated. Assange is incapable of doing wrong. Next is Chelsea Manning, who was known as Bradley when serving in the US Army. Again, the personal and political is conflated, with Manning’s experience as a transgender individual and victim of institutional homophobia in the army somehow exempting her from any criticism. A similar tack is taken with Snowden, whose 18-month separation from his partner being indicative of the nobility and self-sacrificing nature of his cause.
Keeping aside for a moment any ideological or political persuasions, Killian makes a number of glaring factual errors, which on their own don’t undermine his argument, but are indicative of a wider malaise. First, there’s the omission of the fact that the Swedish charges against Assange are to be dropped this month, whether he is guilty or innocent, as the statutes of limitations on the accusations are set to elapse. Secondly, Killian says that footage released by Manning (played at the end of the show) shows US helicopter operators targeting and killing not only Arab men, women, and children, but two American journalists – the pair were in fact Iraqi freelancers working for Reuters. And when discussing the Snowden files, there is no mention of the release of a cache of unredacted documents which reportedly (though not confirmed) put the lives of US and UK agents in the Middle-East in danger. But the unintended, possibly negative ramifications of the actions of these three whistleblowers are never referenced. Killian’s pseudo-liberal, anarcho-spirituality lacks the nuance to deal with such complex issues.
Of course, there’s the obligatory reference to the Israel-Palestine conflict. But instead of taking a balanced view of it, Killian once again fudges the conversation with a banal discussion on the definition of the word ‘missile’. His consideration of the Bilderberg Group and capitalism is equally heavy-handed; the message is that people in positions of power and the media are the bad guys (conveniently excepting the journalists and newspapers who published the whistleblowers’ material in the first place), and that capitalists are evil – there is no grey area. But the obvious rejoinder to this is that you cannot live in the West in the 21st century and say you have nothing to do with capitalism. It’s like saying you’re not a mammal because you don’t believe in it (and no, this is not an apology for the damage done to individuals in capitalist societies).
Far from encouraging a fresh take on all these issues, Killian’s approach is blinkered and ultimately regressive. As a performer, he displays neither the ironic, sub-textual playfulness of a Stewart Lee, nor the rampant commitment of a Bill Hicks to carry this off. The show is set up as comedy, but what few gags there are fall flat, or are overwhelmed by the sanctimonious tone.
One thing you cannot deny about Killian is his earnestness. He does not seem like a bad person by any means and seems to genuinely care about these subjects. And whether you agree with him or not, live comedy, a medium essentially about freedom of expression, needs to be able to address the issues Killian takes up. But absolutely not like this.