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The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning — Inis Nua at the Drake

manning -- interiorTim Price’s “The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning” begins with dichotomy. Possibly multi-chotomy, to coin a term. Tom Reing’s marvelous cast for Inis Nua parade around Meghan Jones’s adaptable set crooning a litany of contradictory nouns and adjectives that add up to an oxymoronic cluster describing the eponymous Mr. Manning, the U.S. Army Intelligence specialist who sent classified documents and photos regarding U.S. military activity in Iraq to Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks, which posted them worldwide.

“He’s a hero!” “He’s a traitor!” “He’s a whistleblower!” “He’s a baby!” “He’s a lifesaver!” “He’s a killer,” the speakers announce. You see the pattern.

Price’s play ends in less random or open-ended style, with Manning, a teenager about to be graduated from the British equivalent of high school, telling his schoolteacher in Wales, where his mother had moved him, he is going to enlist in the Army because he has no choice.

Which means that in the context of Price’s opus, and in factual reality considering joining the U.S. military is a voluntary act, Manning’s last words are a lie.

Oh, they may be genuine. Price may have gathered documentary evidence from Manning’s teacher as he composed “Radicalisation.” Who knows? The point is dramatically, from what we’ve seen and what we know from myriad reports of the Manning case, that final line is more pregnant than it is poignant. Or moving. It portends to a lot but it is really empty, a clever salvo that provokes momentary thought but is really just playwright’s bravado. Even if it is meant to say what might be going on in a boy’s head at the time, something the young Manning might say to have anything to say. Or something weighing on his mind, even though joining the military has not been discussed or hinted at by the teenage Manning on stage. The subject isn’t broached until late in the play during a conversation the adult Manning has with his father.

Luckily, the dichotomies, the different sides, moods, and behavioral stances of Manning prevail in Price’s play. The Welsh author often shows you an unattractive side to Manning’s personality and motivations but follows up with a scene in which Manning, as a child and twentysomething, is psychologically brutalized or a scene in which he might do something noble and leaderlike. The inconsistency Price shows in Manning is a not a literary flaw. It’s the point. Manning is an unsettled, volatile person who can spring from benign to cyclonic with the speed of a well-tuned Porsche, who can withdraw within himself then act out in his idea of valiant, and who can cry on his army or prison bunk but seal one stage of his military doom by striking a higher-ranking soldier. This is a Manning who begs for pity but gives none, who craves friendship, camaraderie, and affection but can never ultimately bounce or cooperate enough to attract them. This is a Manning in his personal hermetic world who can’t adjust to a real world where he has no power, little say, and only faint recognition for one useful talent that sets him apart and coax people to tolerate him.

While Price’s play sometimes annoys as an apologia or resorts to that tired, inconsequential idea that the hardship, disdain, or emotional battering one endures excuses an intentional and calculatedly harmful criminal act, Reing’s production and his cast’s performances, particularly those of Trevor Fayle, David Pica, and Isa St. Clair, make for compelling watching that makes you willing to ride with some egregious editorializing — perfectly permissible in a play than can be counted as representational fiction (and in a review of the same) — but is bold enough to make you feel some of what Manning might be feeling and depicts many of the traits that lead to Manning being an unpopular misfit.

A sequence at the end of the play, in which Manning, a prisoner on suicide watch, is barraged by guards calling his detainee number and asking if he is all right every five minutes (represented on stage by every three seconds), thereby depriving him of peace or sleep, grates on us by acquainting us with how monotonous, unsettling, and unnerving it can be. We cringe that such a tactic is being used in our name, even on a unsympathetic reprobate like Manning (who some in the Inis Nua would regard in an opposite light). It is too assaulting, too orchestrated, especially for someone who is already caught and in jail. Especially as an unconvicted detainee.

“In our name” has a lot of resonance in Price’s play. And not just about the treatment in custody of Bradley Manning. The Manning case is as divisive and polarizing as any incident of the 21st century. Some cheer his whistleblowing as shedding light on events, situations, and tactics that should be exposed, scorned, and assessed for adjudication. Or just made public for their own sake. Others excoriate Manning as a man and a soldier who took matters that are not his business, even as a human being on Earth, to dangerous, traitorous lengths that threaten immediate security and long-term international relations. Neither of these more absolute groups are inclined to consider reasons ranging from conscience to self-aggrandizement, from moral duty to petulance, Price posits for Manning’s act. A third opinion might be Manning acted in ultimate public interest but erred by doing it while a soldier betraying special clearance that gave him access to top secret documents and images. A fourth is he’s an out and out scoundrel and coward who belligerently committed a shameful act and deserves no understanding or hearing. I’m sure, if I was journalist enough to tax myself more, I could come up with a dozen or more other ways people think of Bradley Manning and his coup de théâtre.

Price covers many of these permutations. Oh, he leans in the direction of Manning as hero and martyr. Price definitely signals he believes Manning was justified in his act and that the information he leaked needed airing and serves an as indictment for military tactics and behavior as well as for any involvement in Iraq. He certainly doesn’t show two sides of the exposure coin, e.g. the repercussions Manning’s act may have had on overall strategy, global diplomacy, and actual lives lost. Nor does he stint in depicting the constant, ignorantly malevolent hazing Manning receives from his barracks mates about being Chapter 15 — gay; older soldiers want him to tell and be discharged — or from prison personnel whose tactics mirror some of those Manning exposed in terms of treatment of Iraqis. Yet he’s fair enough to show you characteristics of Manning that contribute to his unpopularity and habit of doing the rash in the name of having “no choice.”

Price’s aim is not to assess Manning. He’s already done that. He did it before Manning was tried or sentenced. “The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning” comes out in Wales in 2012. Price’s allegiance and attitude are clear. The last thing he wants to do is present information and then have you make up your own mind. No, Price’s position is Manning acted nobly and in the world’s best interests, even if from less than admirable reasons and motives and that he is wrongly imprisoned and worse, made, while in jail, to endure the vituperative disdain that wounded him his entire life. Boo-hoo!

Even with such propagandistic intention in mind, Price is dramatist, and storyteller, enough to show you a variety of scenes that depict Manning in different phases of being a boy and a man, phasing that may shape and influence his actions and interactions. He centers on Manning’s non-conformist streak, one that makes it almost impossible for him to accept authority or orders, let alone conventions or restrictions that don’t suit him. His Bradley is often a brat who sabotages his employment or social relationships because he just can’t along with people and often feels simultaneously superior and rejected. He is fired from every job, unable to get a foothold in working with computers, and frustrated by not being to afford college. (Unless he earns free education by serving four years in the military. As if there was not a loan system, laudable or not, in place, as well as financial aid packages.) Manning is a bundle of rationalizations and excuses. He’s also one who sees his misadventures, consistent in pattern as they are, as someone else’s fault.

Price shows a spiteful side to Manning. His portrayal, as acted interchangeably by the entire cast, is not always one of roses. He also differentiates the dislike Manning attracts towards himself via internal psychology and external behavior from other, less learned or chosen, traits that spur prejudice and ridicule, such as Manning being gay and teased unmercifully for it. Especially in army settings.

Amid the personality traits that rankle others, including both of Manning’s parents, are flashes of courage and nobility, for example when high schooler Manning stands up to his Welsh teacher by refusing to assist her in a tactic she’s using to single out and discipline other students. You see that in spite of him being an outsider, Manning can muster leadership traits and stand up to authority in addition to resisting it or rebelling against it.

This yin-yang approach makes for an interesting character study. “Radicalisation” is best when it depicts the conflicting sides of Manning. The scenes that delve into a boy or man trying to figure out the world and what place he might have in it can even be touching and make you forget for a minute you are watching someone who will at one point do something dastardly or brave, depending on your point of view as regards Manning. A young person’s confusion, and genuine hurt at never being embraced by anyone or included in anything, engenders empathy. It doesn’t justify or absolve for converting one’s alienation into an unconscionable act. Even one that is allegedly of conscience.

Less effective, in terms of eliciting some human feeling towards Manning, are the victimization passages in which you see Manning being browbeaten, belittled, tormented, or assaulted. Poweful though are they as theater, and heartbreaking as they are on the surface, these scenes come across as excuses, as more direct yet cheaper way for Price to nudge you towards Manning’s side. Yes, Manning has a difficult time coping with people who attack him, verbally or physically, for being gay, and, yes, some of the instances are cruel and comment more on the tormentors than on Manning, but Price knows he touches a nerve with his audience any time Manning is confronted or battered because of his homosexuality, and goes to that well a tad too often. A scene is which Manning is treated unlovingly by his father is clichéd but more telling because it reveals when he actually considered enlisting in the Army and why he came to that conclusion (one that doesn’t totally make sense even if young Manning is afraid of his father, cowed by him, and desperate for some acceptance even by doing something contrary to his own will or desire.) The passage with his father also seems more universal from both dramatic and experiential points of view.

Classroom scenes, in which Manning is alternately put down as an outsider, for being an American in Wales as well as for his awkwardness and strange ways, yet has some chance at making friends, particularly with another boy with an interest in and aptitude for computers, are usually telling and absorbing, even in the way the teacher, played excellently by St. Clair, indoctrinates her pupils towards revolution and challenging status quo government. Price also shows us passages in which Manning carries on a mutual and somewhat successful romance with a civilian man, and scenes in which Manning is told by several people that his personal conduct and attitude are untenable but his talent and ability with computers and as an Intelligence analyst are so great he is worth his keep and perhaps even unexpendable. The intimate sequences, between Fayle as Manning and Pico as his boyfriend, border on sweet. The scenes in which he is praised serve as balancing counterpoint for Manning’s assertions that he is never listened to and dismissed by people who don’t know as much as he as well as for the segments it is clear he is only tolerated for his competence but not liked or respected.

You see how completely Price seeks to paint Manning. He wants his portrait to show every facet and give his audience a lot to consider.

He succeeds in doing that, but at times “Radicalisation” can be irritating or infuriating. Mainly because while it is broadly inclusive, it is never objective. Price is always milking us some way. But that’s what playwrights do. And I, as an auditor, am no more objective towards the real Bradley Manning than Price is.

In the long run, from the way Price presents Manning, his grand act is not so much one of conscience, compulsion towards exposure, or respect for truth. It’s an instance of pique and spite, a colossal letting off of steam Manning feels as yet another perceived slight and actual career-changing reprimand. Manning has finally crossed a line in which his commanders are willing to do without his computer skills to rid themselves of an incorrigible maverick who routinely disobeys orders and protocol, makes decisions that are not within his purview, rues accountability, and won’t admit any responsibility for his shortcoming, e.g. striking a fellow soldier and defying one of superior rank, albeit an non-com, over a matter in which he thinks he knows better. The Army is preferring its regulations and discipline over Manning’s contribution, however valuable, and Manning, who Price depicts as longing to be accepted and important, is mentally jarred by that decision. And by the news he will be sent Stateside from Iraq and not deployed to work in Intelligence or with computers for the relatively short duration of his enlistment. (It is an irony that the post to which Manning will be sent is Leavenworth, but not as a prisoner or detainee, only as a soldier marking out the last days of his military commitment.)

Price may think he is showing a character who makes a bold choice because it might be his last chance to do it. Per the text and staging of “Radicalisation,” the conclusion is Manning continues to be the puling, craving-to-be-loved schoolboy that is never evaluated or appreciation in accordance with his assessment of himself. We don’t see a rational human making a difficult decision. We see a brat who makes his move to stick out his tongue at authority and show it what he is capable of doing. Price, for all his priming in a given direction, doesn’t portray Manning as a hero but as a malcontent spoiling the party because he didn’t get the balloon, soda flavor, or donkey tail position he wanted.

Manning has failed again, and in his mind, clever enough to conceive and execute a way to smuggle the information entrusted to him, he going to flummox the officers who are discarding him. He’s going to “show ’em.”

This Bradley Manning is not a radical or an idealist who thinks the world should know all, even if there’s collateral damage in terms of U.S. troop security, Iraqis who may be working with the U.S. on the downlow, or international diplomacy that may affect more than the U.S. He’s a child running to Daddy, in this case Assange, because his lollipop was taken from him.

Price shows many scenes of Manning being rejected or physically beaten, sometimes for things he says, sometimes out of prejudice or, in his father’s case, from absence of any genuine love, and sometimes because bullies want to him to admit his homosexuality to them. These are meant to soften us towards Manning and fill us with the type of sympathy defense attorneys attempt to muster when they bring up a heinous criminal’s deprived childhood or catalog taunts thrown his way. (So and so was called dumb, pelted with ethnic slurs, or denied affection so we should excuse him from strafing the mall and killing innocent people minding their own business and not related to so-and-so’s injuries.)

What “Radicalisation” doesn’t do is make its case — It probably should be called “The Rationalization for Bradley Manning” instead of the “Radicalisation.” — because whatever happened in Manning’s life, the cumulative effect of taunts, belittlement, and rejection, doesn’t justify the act he committed. Especially if it was done, as Price suggests, more from spite than from cool judgment.

Manning was a soldier operating under top security clearance. He was given ultimate trust to handle sensitive material which he had no commission to judge. He had orders and no authority to decide anything about the information he was seeing and handling. His opinion, even when expressed in scenes Price depicts between Manning and superior Intelligence officers, does not matter. Bradley Manning is guilty because he went too far. He exceeded his mandate in a way that gets praise from some but merits more scorn. Daylight is good and has its uses, but you don’t want any and every maverick deciding that “secrecy” may not be maintained, that his will or whim supersedes those to whom he owes allegiance. One cannot help be appalled by some of the information that is known from documents Manning leaked. One cannot help being upset at the kind of psychological torture used on Manning after he was in custody for his offenses. There are lessons to be learned from the data he provided. They are not grounds for exonerating him, granting him hero status, and freeing him for the 35 years he’s sentence to spend in jail.

Like most radicals, who spout and hide behind notions of ends justifying the means, he doesn’t measure all consequences, repercussions, and fallout. He’s too busy basking in his notion of courage and being reinforced by Nobel committees and people whose politics are as cynical and simplistic as Manning’s. (Even Daniel Ellsberg, admittedly before this computer age, took his classified haul to the New York Times, which in the 70s might be counted on to view and vet documents and turn them into a cogent story, rather to a Julian Assange who is as interested in creating uproar and mischief as he is in presenting authenticity.)

Tim Price makes a case for Bradley Manning, but it doesn’t pass muster. Mostly because of the context in which Price, or Reing, frames Manning’s crowning act. The crime is beyond excuse.

Price has written an interesting if flawed play. His style, that jumps time and place and assigns six different actors to play Manning, spawns curiosity and keeps you wanting to learn more. His ability to show several facets of Manning and bring some home by using leitmotifs of characters saying the same thing to and about Manning in different sequences, is dramatically sound, satisfying, and engrossing.

As a playwright, Price has done well. As a logician, he begs issues and skews information to suit his point of view. The latter is expected of a dramatist, but Price is pleading a case on which the audience ideally should make individual judgments instead of being force fed a specific attitude.

As a director, Tom Reing has brought out the power and controversial nature of Price’s piece. He doesn’t shrink from any aspect of Manning’s persona or on its effect on others. Inis Nua’s is an intense, immediate production that keeps yu watching and listening.. Reing’s production is a masterpiece of timing and is adept at showing the relationship between people. It is always clear, even when passing a pair of eyeglasses around to each performer as he or she takes over as Manning, at times switching mid-scene.

Reing catches the various views Price seeks to present of Manning. This is a careful, well-conceived production that wrings whatever power, emotion, and provocativeness Price packs into his work. The entire cast is flawless in its multiple portrayals. Johnny Smith is particularly keen in letting us see the facets of the teenage Bradley Manning as he attends secondary school in Wales. Smith conveys the boy who wants to be one of the herd while showing how the traits that become inherent to Manning prevent that, and not only because the other children are stand-offish at Bradley being an American. Smith also provides us with a sure sense of Bradley not knowing firmly if he wants to be a regular guy or the isolated intellect, the teacher’s pet or the class rebel. Seeds of indecision, of not being comfortable in any social role are cast. Smith excels as Manning’s cold, unresponsive father and Manning, the prisoner, being awakened and force to speak several times an hour.

Trevor Fayle is the most consistently touching of the Manning portrayers, perhaps because he plays Manning giving and receiving legitimate love that is also romantic. Fayle is distinctive and outstanding in all of his roles and reveals some agile dance moves

David Glover, working those hips, is also a great dancer, but he makes his mark by creating stark moments of pathos as Manning being stripped and dressed down for prison. Glover also does well as a stereotypical but insistent, belittling drill sergeant who picks mostly on an uncontrollably blinking soldier played by Smith but finds shrewd ways to needle Fayle’s Manning, who the sergeant would like to see drummed from the ranks.

David Pica is sterling as Manning’s boyfriend and plays Manning and other parts with intensity and integrity. Pica has undeniable stage presence that somehow adds to given his scenes more weight.

Isa St. Clair displays a panoply of traits and emotions as Bradley’s teacher. In her portrayal you also see the signs of the activist teacher who is intent on giving her class a specific point of view about history rather than just giving facts and contrapuntal examples of historians’ competing takes on a situation. As St. Clair plays the teacher, you see her place in Manning’s “radicalisation.”

Campbell O’Hare is the actor left with no poignant or outstanding moments, but O’Hare is an excellent ensemble member who keeps Reing’s pace flowing and makes the most of any chance she had to speak or form a character. She is most noticeable as Manning’s classmate with a knack for coming near answers she’s not sure she knows.

Meghan Jones’s set serves a lot of settings well. Katherine Fritz’s costumes made good use in varying Army camouflage fatigues and an occasional civilian wardrobe. Zach McKenna’s sound design evokes a sense of place, especially in the Intelligence hut in Iraq and in prison settings.

“The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning” runs through Sunday, May 15, presented by Inis Nua Theatre at the Drake, 15th and Spruce Streets, in Philadelphia. Show times are 7 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $35 to $30 and can be obtained by calling 215-454-9776 or by visiting www.inisnuatheatre.org. Grade: Play, B-; Production, A

 

 

 

 

 

 

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