By curious coincidence, Inis Nua’s The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning is the second play this season to begin with the protagonist stripped to his underpants. Previously, a similar image set the stage in Wilma’s An Octoroon — but this one is more extreme: one of actors playing Bradley Manning (more on this later) lies on the floor in a fetal position. He looks bereft and unformed, an object of scorn to the rest of the ensemble, till he finally pulls himself together and gets dressed.
The picture seems to imply a promise to the audience — that we’ll come to understand Bradley Manning in the coming scenes: what he’s about, and how and why he got that way. (The title suggests it, too.) But though The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning is an accomplished, energetic show, that promise is never really fulfilled.
Manning will be a familiar figure to many — a real-life American soldier, one might say he was in fact doubly “radicalized.” In 2010, he downloaded 400,000 classified documents dealing with the Iraq war to WikiLeaks. For this, Manning was sentenced to 35 years (which he is currently serving); he was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. In 2013, Manning came out as a transgender woman. Now known as Chelsea, in February 2015 Manning was granted the right to receive hormone therapy while in prison.
Playwright Tim Price’s account — written a few years ago, just before Manning was sentenced — focuses largely on his early life, including a number of scenes set in a Welsh school where he was a student. Radicalisation might also be seen as about the fluidity of identity more generally. This is handled in some imaginatively metaphoric ways, including a cruel army basic training exercise, where everybody’s clothes are thrown together in a heap, and each person has almost no time to retrieve their own. Evolving identity is also built into the structure – the six actors who make up the ensemble (four men and two women) play all the roles, including, for each of them, a turn at Manning (sometimes more than at one at the same time).
There is an exhilarating sense of theatricality. But even when done skilfully, as it is here, this kind of quick-change acting is inevitably accomplished through a few bold strokes (an accent, a couple of signature gestures), and reduces characters to types. Taken along with the punchy, often short scenes that move back and forth across time and place, Radicalisation feels jittery and fragmented. Some of the resulting destabilzation is intentional, and director Tom Reing’s visually gripping production delivers considerable excitement.
But ultimately, Radicalisation registers more as a theatrical tour-de-force than a thoughtful examination of the larger implications of the story. One more time, near the end of the play, Bradley Manning will be seen in his underwear. Again, he gets dressed — but metaphorically speaking, Manning remains an elusive figure, his identity still in flux.
The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning runs through May 15. For more information, visit the Inis Nua Theatre website.