Can a play help tell the story of the world's most famous whistleblower?

'The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning' seeks to redress the balance.

Bradley Manning probably has greater name recognition in Pembrokeshire than in any other part of the UK.  Nearly 700 days on from his arrest in Iraq on suspicion of passing material to WikiLeaks – yet still months away from any court martial – a play based on Bradley’s story has just opened in the school he attended as a teenager.  The National Theatre of Wales production moves to Cardiff and then north Wales in the next two weeks, with all the performances being broadcast live, online.

Haverfordwest is a small market town set among gently undulating hills, pastel-coloured terraced houses in dispersed with the occasional dark green or bright pink.  Bradley Manning was born in Oklahoma but spent most of his teenage years here after his parents’ divorce. His mother still lives in the area, as do many members of her family.

I first visited Haverfordwest almost exactly a year ago in aid of the campaign to get the British Government to recognise its responsibilities towards Bradley, who was experiencing conditions in military detention that the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture has said constituted “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment”.  In the end, the FCO were prevailed upon to make representations to their US counterparts, which contributed to Bradley’s move to better conditions at Fort Leavenworth;  they are, however, currently refusing to send observers to his pre-trial hearings, which continue later this month.

Playwright Tim Price has faced some interesting challenges in putting The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning together.  The scale of the issues around Bradley’s case – tracing as they do seismic shifts in the control of information and the conduct of war and diplomacy – have meant that much of his personal background has been obscured, to say nothing of his possible motivation and moral agency.  Much of the journalistic treatment to date has sought to explain Bradley away by emphasising his divergence from the norm, which is more or less par for the course for those accused of blowing the whistle.

The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning is one of a series of works that seek to redress that balance - there’s a couple of books recently published, with another soon to come. The play cuts back and forth between a Welsh schoolroom, the mid-West and a Boston hackerspace before entering the military and finding itself at Forward Operating Base Hammer in Iraq.  Some of this is drawn directly from source and some is imagined – the online presentation of the play makes it clear which is which, by presenting the source material as the action unfolds.

Six actors of different genders and backgrounds all play Bradley at points and the play encourages the audience to draw parallels between the different situations and the character at their centre.  There’s a constant duality in the production between casual injustice and the idealism of those who would challenge it, but how much Bradley’s inner conflict is a product of context and how much of personality is ultimately something that the audience has to decide. 

As someone who has followed the story for a while, this feels like the right approach. There’s a wealth of comment out there on all aspects of the case, but getting any closer to Bradley as a personality is extraordinarily difficult.  What information has come out since his arrest has been mediated by visitors and legal counsel and it’s one of the many ironies of the situation that the channels of communication have been more or less cut off since Bradley was moved out of solitary confinement last year.

Another irony is that the two significant documents that do relate to Bradley personally– the chat logs that led to his arrest and the complaint against his treatment issued from prison - are presented in the first person, addressed to an audience whose sympathies you, as a reader cannot help but be aware of.  As a result, those texts have an inherently theatrical quality: you cannot read the chat logs without being acutely aware that Adrian Lamo delivers his correspondent to the FBI.  Equally, you know that the US navy will deny there is any case to answer about what happened to Bradley at Quantico. Many would argue that’s not an easy position to sustain given that the then-commander of the brig was dismissed and the facility closed altogether at the end of last year – but watching a dramatisation of what prevention of injury watch actually entails is more eloquent than any editorial gloss.

 

 

 

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Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem