An interview with ‘The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning’ playwright Tim Price

The radicalisation of playwright Tim Price

Henrik Eger interviews Welsh playwright Tim Price about the genesis of his play The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning, which premiered in 2012, before Chelsea Manning's transition. The play received its U.S. premiere at Inis Nua Theatre Company and continues until May 15, 2016. Read Mark Cofta's review here.

Playwright Tim Price. (Photo by Dan Green/National Theatre Wales)

Eger: Tell us about your background as a politically aware writer.

Price: I was brought up in the South Wales valleys, a densely populated mountainous region now in post-industrial decline. The Government never had a plan, nor any inclination to plan for places like the valleys.

I became a journalist on my local paper here, and wrote plays in my spare time. Like most people's route into theatre, it was a series of happy accidents, good fortune, and perseverance. 

What attracted you to writing about Chelsea Manning, an American citizen hailed as a hero and condemned as a traitor for leaking hundreds of thousands of military and diplomatic documents to WikiLeaks?

The Collateral Murder leak really shocked me. It was at this point I understood the power of WikiLeaks. I was fascinated by their groundbreaking approach to protecting sources by never knowing who they are in the first place.

When Chelsea was arrested, I was gripped by the story because this incident disrupted WikiLeaks' reputation as the safest place to leak material. When I discovered she was Welsh, I knew I had to tell her story.

The evolution of a radical play

Tell us more about both your research and the creative process involved in writing this unusual drama.

The play was first produced in 2012 when Chelsea was in solitary confinement. You couldn't get any info about her situation, if she was being charged, or why the U.S. was treating her in a way “tantamount to torture.”

But the documents we did have were the chat logs leaked by Wired, between Chelsea and another hacker [Adrian Lamo, who reported Manning to the FBI], where she confessed to the WikiLeaks dump. She outlined her politics, gave her reasoning, but also gave an indication of her fragile mental state.

The treatment of Chelsea in prison is all based on documented evidence as Chelsea tried to complain about her treatment at the time — the removal of clothes, the waking up, etc.

I also went to West Wales where she lived when she was in the UK and met old school friends of hers. I got a sense of what she was like in school and slowly built up the character.

Tell us why you chose to present Manning’s character through six different actors.

For three reasons: first, because I felt connected to Chelsea and that she could easily have been me. Having everyone play the Bradley character reminds us that anyone could find themselves in this situation.

The second reason is that The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning is not and could not be a straight biographical play. Having everyone play the Bradley character puts the question of who and what you are watching on the stage.

Third, in a play where you are managing huge amounts of information and events, the device brings subtext and nuance, as we chart the fracturing of the Bradley character.

How tempting was it for you to take sides?

I think it's impossible to sit on the fence when writing drama. Critics often say writers are brave because they “ask questions” of society. I don't think it's brave to ask questions. I think it's brave to offer answers.

John E. McGrath, the founding artistic director of the National Theatre Wales (NTW), accepted your concept “before we had a single line.” You must have been under tremendous pressure. How did you persevere with this explosive subject?

John was incredibly brave and supportive when he switched plays and announced NTW had a play on Chelsea. The UK media put it all over the press that we had this story that will explain what motivated this person's actions when, at the time, I had as much of an idea as the next person. When I saw the press reaction, I found myself hiding under a duvet for about a fortnight, asking myself, “What the hell have I done?” I learned that, ultimately, if you feel something is right, you have to take a risk.

Tell us more about the possible impact of “radical protest” in Welsh history and its rebellion toward England on Chelsea Manning when she attended school in Wales.

Welsh history is really a long series of noble losses. We are England's oldest colony. Having such a mighty neighbor means holding onto our identity, in itself, is an act of resistance. To correct people who assume you are English is an act of resistance. Americans do not understand what it feels like to be brought up in a culture and identity that is so deeply threatened and dominated by a neighbor.

There were three million people with the same security clearance as Chelsea; yet, only she leaked any information. She was probably the only officer to have also gone through the Welsh education system. I think those two things are related.

What did Susan Manning, Chelseas mother, and other family members and former classmates tell you after they saw the production?

They were hugely appreciative because at the time, the UK Government was offering no consular support. They refused to recognize Chelsea's dual citizenship, and therefore this little Welsh family was cut adrift while one of their children was at the center of a global news storm. It was only a campaigning politician, Ann Clwyd, who represents my valley (you see a pattern here?) who took up Chelsea's case and forced the UK Government to support them.

What made you accept the offer to stage your play in Philadelphia?

I think directors are drawn to the formal innovations within the play, but are often unnerved by its politics. It takes someone with courage to want to put this on, especially in the United States, and I think [Inis Nua Theatre Company artistic director] Tom Reing is just that kind of director. 

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