“Bradley Manning is just a boy”
Tim Price’s The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning premiered for the National Theatre of Wales last year and with a remarkable sense of timing, after the trial that resulted in a 35 year prison sentence and the subsequent revelation that the soldier identifies as a woman, returned this summer to the Edinburgh Festival. But with a view to vastly expanding its potential audience, each performance was live-streamed on t’internet and so I was able to catch it from the comfort of my very own home. And this seems the point about the capturing of theatre on film – no one is pretending that it matches the live experience but the very uniqueness of it necessarily imposes an exclusivity and so innovations such as these should be recognised for the opportunities they bring to people who otherwise would never have seen such shows, rather than focusing on what might or might not be lost in the transfer.
But back to the play. Tim Price’s starting point is that Manning is half-Welsh on her mother’s side and spent around four years living in Wales as a teenager – the playwright posits that studies of politics and sociology of a particularly Welsh radical bent could well have shaped the mind of the person who caused one of the greatest leaks of classified material in history when releasing documents about the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to Wikileaks. There’s a convincing, if fictionalised, account of how this education gave him the inner courage to follow his convictions but also suggesting some of the demons that plagued her psyche. Price intercuts this story with a fast-moving whip around other key moments in Manning’s life – college years spent exploring sexuality, the reluctant fall into the army’s ranks, the troubled family life she runs from, the hellish reality of internment by her very own military.
It is breathtakingly exhilaratingly done as John E McGrath’s assured direction sees a cast of six bright young things whirling around the frequent scene changes and huge roll-call of characters and vibrant usage of physical theatre to tell this disarming story. The role of Manning is fluidly passed from actor to actor by the donning of a pair of spectacles and so we get to see a multi-faceted interpretation of this figure but also, retrospectively, a powerful reminder that issues of identity and gender are not so easily nailed down and represented facilely. It is an excellent piece of theatre and a brilliant showcase for a creative team who achieve much. It will be interesting to see what future the play will have now that sentence has been passed and Bradley has revealed herself to be Chelsea – should there be rewrites, retitling, or no changes at all – but I very much hope this isn’t the last we see of it.