ESSAY Caroline Ross

NWR Issue 102

Bradley Manning and the Life of Brians

Pull the camera back. See the brown slick of the river sliding lazily towards the North Sea, the blasted landscape of its Gateshead banks colonised by untidy clusters of car-repair businesses and breakers’ yards; or insert an aerial shot, showing out two characters, actors as it happens, dwarfed by Victorian buildings, the empty remnants of Newcastle’s shipping empire. It’s a late 1970s period piece, a massive crumbling set of boarded-up shops and offices, a snaking line of ships’ chandlers, ships’ agents, customs’ houses and all the rest.

In twenty-five years these will be gleamingly re-inhabited as prestige apartments or barristers’ chambers, but for now, only the ghosts of shipping clerks, whispering wharfage costs, slip on and off their high stools, and rodents scuffle among the yellowed papers, scenting in the still air the lingering whiff of turpentine.

This was the backdrop to the kind of political theatre I knew in the 1970s, theatre that came in the form of a small touring company in Newcastle. The subject matter of Live Theatre Co’s plays was informed by the broken industrial society and concerned with the politics of class. The company’s stated aim was to develop ‘a body of work for and about north-eastern working-class people’ and it commissioned, developed and performed exclusively new plays, using writers like CP Taylor, Tom Hadaway and Alan Plater. A maximum of eight actors, nearly all from working-class backgrounds, toured six new plays a year all over the north of England, playing a huge variety of venues: from schools to working men’s clubs to pubs to theatres. Audiences saw lives they could identify with in plays that asked questions of the way they were governed.

Thirty years on, the National Theatre of Wales takes its audiences much further from home. The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning this summer played the Edinburgh Festival (where in the play’s opening week its creator was awarded the inaugural James Tait Black Prize for Drama). Tim Price’s play also deals with global rather than national politics and so, on the surface, does not appear to have much in common with the theatre I knew in the seventies.

However, it is a production of a new play, in itself worthy of congratulation these days, and it takes as its starting point a Welsh connection: Manning’s schooldays in Haverfordwest. It is energetically and well performed by a cast of six actors who play a multitude of parts (including sharing the central role) using minimal props, which enable the play to be easily toured to a variety of non-theatre venues. In Wales it was performed in schools, and in Edinburgh this was also the case...

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