at Pleasance @ St Thomas of Aquin’s School, Thursday 8th August 2013
*Originally written for A Younger Theatre*
With Bradley Manning found guilty of twenty charges and facing up to 136 years in a military prison, Tim Price’s The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning feels all the more important now than it did in 2012. It’s a quick, sharp play which attempts to understand the events which led up to Manning’s leaking of secret document to WikiLeaks in 2010. Though the trial is not featured, it savages a system which sees things as black or white, demonstrating that individuals are the sum of everything that leads up to the present moment. And in John E McGrath’s sexy, stylish production, it is suggested that we are all capable of making decisions like Manning.
Covering ten years, Price looks at both Manning’s school years in Wales as he learns about revolution and rebellion, and his experience within the US army as a homosexual pretending to be something he isn’t. His background thus gives him both the tools of understanding and the reason to try to make a difference, with discussions of martyrdom peppering the text in order to help both him and us contemplate his position in the history books (the idea being that a martyr knowingly gives up his life; can someone be one if they didn’t think they were going to get caught?).
I’m interested by a message screened on the monitors placed over the stage at the beginning of the show, telling us that the scenes in Bradley’s school are “imagined” whilst “everything else is true”. Now, there’s clearly an element of truth here, in that many of the computer analyst’s years in the army have been documented throughout his trial, but Price’s representation of them is no more “true”, really, than the years in Wales. He’s no doubt fabricated at least some of the dialogue just like the scenes about Dic Penderyn earlier in Manning’s life. What this does, though, is to place his Welshness in opposition to his Americanness, with the former taking on a mythical quality and the latter seemingly brutally real in its wake. Price is playing the same game as those who accuse his hero of treason, framing something as “true” in order to give it more weight.
McGrath’s production – produced by National Theatre Wales – is intelligently set in a school. As we walk through to the auditorium, we hear commands shouted from corridors and soldiers cleaning guns in classrooms. Entering the space, the screens show the famous ‘Collateral Murder’ video leaked by Manning, and we instantly recognise the importance of his actions.
Six actors play all the parts in the play, with each taking on the role of Manning at some point in his life (Matthew Aubrey plays him with a brash naivety at the start and the glasses get passed through everyone before reaching the geeky and awkward but quietly confident Harry Ferrier at the end). He thus becomes a symbol more than a man, a figure who can mean something different to everyone and is seen through different lenses at different stages of his life.
Chloe Lamford’s design takes on the sense of a military drill hall, with towering poles loaded with lights and computer monitors and American flags on chairs and blankets. The relatively small space is made vast by Natasha Chivers’s cold, forceful lighting design, which shows those around Manning to be unaware of his thoughts and lacking empathy. Then there’s a glitchy, New Aesthetic-y sound design from Mike Beer, which plays excerpts from the files leaked and allows music to explode out of the speakers at key points in Manning’s life. The final moment is joyful and celebratory, as he makes the decision to make his mark and stand up for what he believes.
Some of the ideas about sexuality and martyrdom in The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning probably deserve a bit more of a critique than I have given here, and sometimes the focus on this individual in all these discussions does take away from the reasons he leaks the files in the first place (i.e. to demonstrate the atrocities the US army was committing), but McGrath’s production is still a thrill ride which takes us into the mind of a man who did something because he thought it was right. It’s not going to reverse the decisions of the judge and jury, but at the very least it exposes the hypocrisy at the heart of those who accuse him of being guilty.