“Bradley Manning is a traitor.””Bradley Manning is a hero.””Bradley Manning is a soldier.””Bradley Manning’s personal and sexual issues informed his decision.””Bradley Manning was let down by those above him.”
“The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning,” produced by Inis Nua theater company at the Drake Theater in Philadelphia, opens with six actors trading statements about the titular character.
Private First Class Manning, a transgender woman now known as Chelsea Manning, was convicted in 2013 of releasing hundreds of thousands of classified military documents to Wikileaks. The soldier had access to intelligence databases, whereby she was able to release sensitive airstrike videos and intelligence cables related to suspect military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
She became a polarizing figure — condemned as a traitor on one hand, on the other nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize as a whistleblower.
In 2015, Manning successfully petitioned the military to acknowledge her as female and allow her to undergo hormone treatments. The play, written during Manning’s trial in 2012, predated her transformation and refers to her by her birth name.
Playwright Tim Price’s nonlinear script jumps around in time from when Manning entered high school in Wales (her Welsh mother moved back to her home country after divorce) to her decision to enlist in the Army, identifying at the time as a gay man, to her espionage trial.
Inis Nua artistic director Tom Reing found places in the script that suggested the forthcoming gender transformation that Price could not have anticipated.
“There are hints at the transformation in the play, and I was like, ‘Wow, [Price] got it right. He did his homework,'” said Reing.
Reing and his cast were able to make the play their own because Price wrote a fairly loose script. While six actors play Manning, the script does not dictate who plays the character at any given moment. Because the cast features four men and two women, Manning’s onstage gender is always in flux.
“We have a certain actor play Bradley Manning in Wales, certain actor stateside, certain actor in the brig,” said Reing. “It’s this idea that anyone could have been Manning. He made a choice to leak these cables because he was upset by what was being done in our country’s name. He thought that if other people knew, they would be just as upset.”
Inis Nua is a Philadelphia theater company focusing on contemporary playwrights from the British Isles, particularly Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. When Reing first saw the play in 2013, staged by the National Theater of Wales at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, he was taken by its story and political urgency.
He decided that a play about an American soldier would be appropriate for Inis Nua because Price posits that Manning’s radical behavior in America was informed by her exposure as a teenager to the Welsh tradition of activism.
“A lot of reforms in the United Kingdom were championed by Welsh radicals,” said Reing. “Things like suffrages, decent wages, even the famous miners’ strike during Thatcher’s years — that was centralized in Wales.”
If the play does not treat Manning as a hero, it paints its title character sympathetically. Reing wanted to present the fictionalized Manning to keep her case from fading from the national conversation. Manning was sentenced in 2013 to 35 years in prison.
Taken along with the case of former CIA contractor Edward Snowden — who leaked information about NSA surveillance on private citizens — the play “continues the story of what our government is doing,” said Reing. “Also, I like it because it’s an American story told by a Welsh writer. I think he’s more cynical than we would be. That’s OK. It’s OK for Americans to be knocked down a notch.”
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to more consistently refer to Manning by the appropriate name and pronouns.