Edinburgh Fringe 2013
National Theatre Wales debuted this intelligent, energetic play about US military intelligence analyst Bradley Manning at schools in Wales last year. Covering his years at school in Haverfordwest and later life in the army, it grapples with the many difficult questions posed by a man at the centre of one of the big stories of our time.
Dividing opinion like few other recent figures in the news, Bradley Manning has for many come to symbolise the challenge we face in balancing liberty and security, and as such will perhaps come to be seen as one of the most iconic figures of the early 21st century – for good or ill. When one individual stands for so much within our collective imagination, it is as vital as it is fascinating to understand who they are and what motivates them, and that is the agenda of this impressive production by National Theatre Wales, originally produced for secondary school audiences.
On the way in to the theatre, the audience is led through the corridors of St. Thomas of Aquin’s High School, passing a number of open doored classrooms. In each sits a uniformed soldier, some exercising or holding weapons, who fix their expressionless gazes on us as we walk past. This is a highly distinctive and powerful tool in establishing the intensity and seriousness of the material. Upon reaching the performance space, we are confronted with a stage area dotted with a large number of surveillance screens, adding to the effect.
The background to the production is a lesser reported chapter of Manning’s life story: his teenage years spent with his mother in Haverfordwest, south west Wales. We’re informed at the start that the scenes depicting his classes at Tasker Milward school (where the play was also first staged) are imagined, but it is these that provoke the most interest. Tim Price’s efficient script depicts a series of interactions between Manning, a history teacher and his fellow classmates, through which we see him finding and articulating the values that informed his later life, and it is often fascinating to draw the connections between these formative moments and the events that followed.
The rest of the play takes us through Manning’s life after his return to the USA (where he was born), up to and including his three year incarceration. Though many moments are captivating, the pace of scene changes becomes exhausting; it is quite apparent that it was written for an audience than can barely make it through a five minute Youtube video without losing concentration. But despite, or because of this, it’s a production full of slick bits of group movement, lively staging and a varied soundtrack that ought to keep people of all ages engaged. Each of the six young actors plays multiple characters, with all six portraying Manning himself at one stage of his life; the object used to donate the protagonist is a pair of chunky framed glasses, a simple and clever idea given their common association with social misfits.
While the life story format of the piece inevitably only offers a whistle stop tour of the moral and political issues raised by Manning’s actions, it does provide a reasonable amount to grapple with. Wisely, plenty of focus is given to his relationship with neuroscience student Tyler Watkins, and the problems Manning faced in the army because of his sexuality. The play indirectly poses the idea that the incident of the leaks had as much to do with the US military’s ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy (which can be interpreted as a symptom of society’s prejudice) as with the ethics or legality of the Iraq war. The sympathy here clearly lies with Manning, who is shown as being frequently belittled and pushed into corners by the expectations of society and the military, but the script manages to realise the man as a complex character, full of the foibles within us all.