‘What I did doesn’t matter; what matters is what happened,’ says Private Bradley Manning in the MolinoGroup’s excellent new play, Desert. In a week that saw Julian Assange hole himself up in Ecuador’s London embassy out of fear that extradition to Sweden would inevitably lead to America and all that implies, it’s an important distinction to make – and for us to remember. In their exploration of the campaign phrase ‘We are all Bradley Manning’, the MolinoGroup ask us to consider what we would have done in the same situation, exposed to the same pressures, and if our faith in Britain as a nation that respects the rights of whistleblowers is strong enough to enable us to do what we think is right.
From her bedroom in Wales, aspiring hacktivist Morgan researches Manning’s case, discussing it with her online community. Is he a hero or a traitor? A true patriot or an embittered opportunist with mental health problems? The narrative cuts back and forth – from Morgan’s room to Manning’s cell in Quantico Brig, Virginia, to his posting in Iraq – the disrupted form reflecting her attempt to make sense of it all. Morgan’s online conversations (projected at the back of the space) not only drive the debate but also comment on the internet’s role overall. While it connects us globally and allows access to bewildering amounts of information, the internet simultaneously isolates, and creates a dislocation that resonates with Manning’s descriptions of being in the desert, of being surrounded by ‘trigger-happy rednecks’ whose bullying forced him ever deeper into himself. As an intelligence analyst, Manning was spending 15-hour shifts in a secure room with unlimited access to US military communications systems; he felt so disconnected from everyone around him that he resorted to unburdening himself in increasingly revelatory exchanges with a hacker called Adrian Lamo, who eventually reported him to the FBI. ‘If you had unprecedented access to classified networks 14 hours and day, seven days a week for eight-plus months, what would you do?’ he asks.
In Giles Roberts’ astonishingly good performance we get a sense of Manning’s fragility, of what seems to be his glaringly obvious unsuitability for military life; he paces the space, plucking at himself, his solitariness compounded by what he’s done and what he’s seen. The bursts of aggression – ‘Are you all right, soldier?’ barks the disembodied voice into Manning’s cell at regular intervals; Manning’s internalised interpretations of the bullying culture – build steadily. Is this how individuals are gradually inured to the violence that enables them to carry out orders that in other circumstances would seem insane? ‘They used to watch it for fun,’ say Manning as the Collateral Murder video fills the screen, the helicopter pilot stating ‘keep shooting… keep shooting’ as he fires on a group of Iraqis on the ground. Once you’ve seen it, is there any other option than exposing it?
From the lighting and sound design, the perceptive use of space to the assured performances, every aspect of this production is a model of elegant concision – an impressive feat in tackling a subject so large. In September, after more than two years in detention, Bradley Manning will finally go on trial. Whether that’s the point at which we’ll find out the ‘truth’ remains to be seen. Until then, Desert gives us much to think about.