How did they get St Thomas Aquin’s High School to agree to be the venue for Tim Price’s “The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning”? If the play provides the idea that high school is as awful as the US military then the venue literally provides the school. On our way to the auditorium where this play is being shown we walk around a labyrinth of school corridors, whilst in the passing classrooms US Marines pose with their weapons. School bullies traditionally put their victims’ heads down the toilet; in this school they presumably carry out waterboarding.
In the auditorium I wonder whether we will all have to sit cross-legged on the floor in rows, whilst the headmaster gives an address. In a minute we will no doubt have to stand to sing “Morning Has Broken.” Yet the beginning of National Theatre Wales’ play is genuinely startling – a camouflage sheet is whipped off a table to reveal Bradley Manning (Matthew Aubrey) huddling stark naked in front of the entire school, I mean audience. It is eerily reminiscent of a self-conscious schoolboy’s nightmare.
I was expecting to be underwhelmed by “The Radicalisation,” because I do not think that Manning or his motives should be idealised, but this play is mostly apolitical. Price never concerns himself with whether the classified material that Manning leaked was really worth a thirty-five year prison sentence; or whether the disclosures either put intelligence sources in danger or inspired the Arab Spring. Indeed, there is a general chariness about the truth behind this play, as evinced by the ludicrous legal disclaimer in the programme that it “should not be understood as a biography or any other factual account.” The story’s honorary Judas, Adrian Lamo, has gone AWOL; whilst an even richer mine of novelty remains unexcavated with Julian Assange’s failure to make an appearance.
Yet “The Radicalisation” is a very well made piece of theatre. It is long for a Fringe play but you rarely tire of it. The cast are full of beans and their show is lavishly physical. There are numerous scenes of arresting symbolism, which at their most potent capture something of Leonard Lawrence’s ordeal in Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket.” When Manning’s boyfriend chucks him, he woefully compares himself to an insurgent obliterated in an airstrike. Such is the success of this play that the remark does not seem tasteless or self-aggrandising, but emotionally authentic. Manning elsewhere ruefully contrasts the ease with which he can obtain military secrets with his need to keep his own sexuality secret. The ghastly monotony of his “suicide watch” is conveyed in a military reconstruction of one of Escher’s staircases, in which guards endlessly circle him chiming “are you okay?”
There are definite weaknesses with the writing, however, and they invariably derive from Price’s assumption that Manning’s behaviour can be explained by his education and upbringing. Manning’s experiences as a gay man in the US military are simply a lot more interesting than his rough time at school, because everybody has had a rough time at school but few people have been openly gay and 5 ft. 2 in the US military. Our patience may begin to wear thin when this play likens Manning’s cross history teacher to a military machine which systematically crushes dissent. Such a prospect devalues rather than exposes tyranny.
If Price would like to venerate Manning, his adherence to the facts means that he is never likely to succeed. Bradley Manning was an insect. He was one of those people who can be always found in the corners of life, alone and agitating. In this respect, “The Radicalisation” would have worked better if it had surrounded Manning with more vivid and morally assured characters than himself. He is instead interned in a flimsy world of inconsequential people. Compared to bullying Marines and annoying schoolmates, Manning may seem like a man of substance, but if he was dropped into our own world his inadequacy would soon become evident.
I almost walked out when the play began to liken Manning to Nye Bevan, but this theatricality can be attributed to Manning himself rather than to the play. He is a figure of anguished, pompous melodrama and he was never “radicalised” in the same sense as the Welsh chartists. They were campaigning for a fairer society; he just went a bit mental and pinched a load of random secrets.
Perhaps this errant soldier should have actually stuck to his guns. Manning was originally required to spend eleven hours a day watching footage of foreigners being blown to smithereens. When weighed against that, solitary confinement seems almost like a holiday.