The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning

The latest offering from the excellent National Theatre Wales is a ‘political fantasy for the networked world’. We are presented with a biography of the young Bradley Manning, incarcerated and tortured by the US government for the past 2 years as he awaits trial for the alleged leaking of over 500,000 US army reports from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including the damning videos of airstrikes on civilians in Baghdad and Granai.

NTW are keen to stress that this is a fictionalised account based on the real events. While the broad facts are adhered to the dialogue has been imagined – the (often terse) exchanges between Manning and his classmates, his teacher, his colleagues, his father, his lover and with the US army, are all convincingly written and compellingly acted.

In the appropriately utilitarian space of the school gym hall, the set is stark and stripped back to a minimum of a few plastic chairs and a table, rearranged by the actors as each scene demands. The space is delineated by lines of tape across the floor, behind which we the audience sit, surrounding the action on all four sides. The geometry of the set, with 4 lockers set back amongst the audience, one on each side, has the eerie suggestion of the cross hairs of a target. At each corner is a scaffold post, a jumble of screens at its base, showing by turn Lady Gaga videos, computer code, the leaked Apache video footage and real-time dialogues between remote audiences watching live stream. The monitors serve to orientate us not only in the fictional time and place of each scene but also the real time and place of our mediated, connected world.

The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning review
The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning
By Tim Price,
Directed by John E McGrath
Cardiff High School, 18th April 2012
National Theatre Wales

Everything is exposed for us to see – none of theatre’s usual tricks, no smoke and mirrors, nothing hidden, no secrets. And there is no division between actors and audience – we are on the same level, sharing the same space, and watching the action from multiple perspectives.  From the decision to stage this piece in schools, (one of which was the very school Manning attended), to the set design, sound, lighting, movement, acting, direction – it is clear that every element of the work has been cleverly used to powerfully realise the story of Bradley Manning. The form is inseparable from the content. Or the medium is the message.

The play is structured as a series of short, sharp fragments, abruptly punctuated by loud bursts of the school bell, thumping beats / thrash metal and the slam of a prison cell door. It is an abrasive experience – through the use of repetition and the portrayal of bullying, aggression and moments of boredom we are given a taste of the stupidity and banality of the mundane day-to-day cruelty with which the army treat their own. There are also poignant moments of vulnerability and moments of pure exhilaration (not wishing to give anything away).

The players change roles with a simple casting off of a garment (from school uniform to army uniform) or by donning (Manning’s) spectacles, in a move that cleverly echoes the ‘I Am Bradley Manning’ movement and which the cut-out face on the show’s flyer is also a reference. Or an invitation.

In an age of revolutions and riots, the premise of the play is a pertinent one. How did this happen? How was Bradley Manning radicalised? Who is responsible for his radicalisation? His history teacher in Wales? His father, who he was terrified of? The US college system, which Manning felt he was excluded from financially, and that the army was his only route to fulfilling his dream of studying at MIT? Manning’s homosexuality is also given attention, as are his ambitions and questioning of authority. Manning isn’t played as a particularly likeable character, at times superior and precocious, but what is conveyed is his consistent and clear belief in and commitment to fairness, justice and truth.

In asking the question of how Bradley Manning was radicalised, this piece asks how do any of us become radicalised? What is our commitment to justice and truth?

“In the 21st century, information is power; the truth cannot be hidden; and the legitimacy of governments will ultimately depend on active and informed citizens.” – President Obama, May 2011

In a few days, on 23rd April 2012, Bradley Manning will stand a pre-trial court hearing. Vigils will take place all over the world in solidarity.

Audiences around the world can watch The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning viewed live stream @ nationaltheatrewales.org