It was only a matter of time before the NT Live model, broadcasting theatre performances to cinema screens since 2009, would make its way into our homes and the realm of digital technologies. The company Kinura who specialise in webcasting and previously worked with Pilot Theatre on pilot-theatre.tv, broadcasting an array of conferences, rehearsals and readings, have now been contracted by National Theatre of Wales for a live stream of The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning. Broadcast from a Cardiff school it plays on selected nights here, and the format is genuinely novel: combining a chat function, live scene titles, and live links to contextual content that appear at salient points throughout the action.
Viewing a play within the context of a web browser might well strike some people as wholly inimical to the point of theatre. How are you supposed to switch off from a day’s hard cognitive labour if you’re gazing into a computer terminal? In what was is this a real tangible experience? A collective experience? Whither the politics of proximity? And if collective effervescence is, as Durkheim persuaded us, the live flame that theatre keeps to form the basis of society, how is this not dimmed across invisibly networked planes of grey screens?
The first of those objections might be allayed by the creeping realisation that the general computer is not a work object, or even an object per se. It is media, which is doubly articulated into public and private spaces. At the same time its blurring of the boundaries between leisure and work may well be an exhausting pathology, but we really must remind ourselves this is not inherent in the technology itself.
These machines of loving grace have been appropriated into the order of the household – that is to say they have been domesticated. Our living rooms are increasingly anthropologically angled around a monitor (or the converging mass of an online machine) in the way they were last century around a cathode ray. Increasingly mobile devices enable theatre over the 3G network to your hand, so perfectly possible to watch on a park bench, as well as on bog or in bath. At the same time they are all linked to something broader, packets come and packets go, and in each of them can be seen a molecular engagement with a wider culture.
In short, to appropriate a metaphor from the Q’uran, computers are as close to us as our own jugular veins.
As for the latter objections, without reaching for Philip Auslander and instead to solely report the experience of watching – I’d argue that at work here is a definite form of liveness. There is the unmistakeable buzz of simultaneity that real-time (in all its delayed approximations) carries with it; a benign pervasive telepresence in the room. In addition I’d argue that so used are we to parcelling our imaginations into two dimensions, the room in is rendered as a kind of space – a different space to irl space, but a space nonetheless. As for atomisation, littering the average desktop are tools of communication so sophisticated, we are all happy robots blowing smoke signals out of our arses.
One facet of networked lives is about learning to combine online and offline activity. Theatre is absolutely in the effervescent business of negotiating new collectivities and techniques for this – from popping conferences to pervasive gaming. Very significantly indeed, a screening of the stream took place in the Red and Black Umbrella squatted social centre in Cardiff, doors opening at 7pm with post-show discussion. This is a vital example of digital technologies magmatic qualities, and how they might create ad hoc public space in the flesh. To demand that theatre back out of all this in the name of being present, to protect some notion of pure experience, is by now nothing more than ruritanian perversity.
That’s not to say this is without issues, and tonight’s performance (under the aegis of which we must include the web developer) doesn’t shy from making a problem of the presentation. The flash window is surrounded by CCTV graphics which frame your viewing, quite literally, as one of voyeurism. That you are the disembodied spectator, surveillor rather than audience member, is compounded by the camera’s positioning high in the eaves of the industrial shed in which the action takes place. This delicate tension, between digital participation and alienation, is echoed in the live-links to the Bradley Manning Support Network that come up nested below the action. Manning is now very alone, relying on people he’s never met to email and donate resources. And just as we might ask ‘what kind of liveness is a live broadcast’, we might also ask ‘how active is digital activism?’
These resonances are to be found elsewhere. Manning, who is played by various cast members of the energised ensemble, sits cross-legged at the end of a relationship on Facebook. “How can anyone deny that a year-long relationship ever existed, with a sentence?” he asks, as the chatbox on the browser flickers in and out life with people asking one another “where r u watching from?” Entwined with an investigation of the historical conditions for martyrdom, are questions of agency for the unlikely hacker icon. And as much as the web provided Manning with the constellation where his talents would shine, The Radicalisation also seems to suggest the web cut him adrift. This lone life of the hacker is shown as providing inadequate shields from heterosexism and homophobia, from the coercive pull of the military. There is a resounding sense of Manning being “alone together” to borrow a phrase from Sherry Turkle. When a young Manning tells his teacher that he is interested in putting his skills to use in a community site, we’re left to wonder why this alternative vision of networked living never came to pass.
The plays superbly mounts the forces that play on Manning, and that shape his networked life. Not least with their use of Lady Gaga, an artist who was tied to Bradley Manning’s pop myth when the detail emerged that it was her music he would listen to when compiling his leaks. Gaga is used deftly, part of the pumping soundtrack that fills the living room with totally listenable fidelity. Gaga-as-fame-monster is ambiguously related to the wolfishness of US Imperial culture, echoing with the Commander’s commands “I want more insurgents, not less”, the grammatical error resonantly compounding the inchoate hunger of the machine. Born This Way is brilliantly detourned to become spectacle, as the soldier’s wave their weapons and cast papers into the air. The euphoria of the transparency warrior is cut with the melancholy emanating from Manning’s Otherness, and hangs a glittering question mark above the mooted victories over “don’t ask don’t tell”.
The Radicalisation starts slow, slightly gauche, before accumulating a real pressing temple-thudding speed by the finale. John E McGrath’s direction and Chloe Lamford’s barebones design move from slightly twee games of ensemble chair-passing to furious, torturous energy. One superb vignette has Manning standing on a table, skewed strewn papers littering the floor, in a partly infantilised part-ethnoracial outsider baggy shorts, the streaming coloured lights and dutch angles of the camera creating a messianic and vertiginous effect. A superb vignette. “I don’t have a choice” runs the play’s final line, across local browsers globally, over the medium which for so many enshrines the hopes for our future autonomy.