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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  is escorted by military police as he departs the courtroom
Source: Getty Images/AFP

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.