Private Manning Goes to Washington

Mon 15th – Sat 27th August 2016

reviews

Christopher Archibald

at 10:49 on 17th Aug 2016

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The audience waits, unsure what to expect, watching a bare stage strewn with piles of manila folders and archive boxes. Stan Richardson’s new play is about information and the people who try to release it for everyone else. This New York theatre company takes an unflinching look at how the Obama administration has lived up to its 2008 campaign promise to protect whistleblowers. It is a complex and thought provoking script and the acting is compelling; yet at points the balance between informing the audience and developing rounded and engaging characters doesn’t quite come off.

Billy (E. James Ford) and Aaron (Matt Steiner) have not seen each other since high school, when things ended badly after Aaron got hold of Billy’s personal notebook. Several years later Aaron, a high-functioning hacker and whistleblower, hasn’t changed much and needs Billy’s help. Together they attempt to devise a play about the WikiLeaks source Chelsea Manning, who released around three-quarters of a million documents. The dialogue is well-paced, raising interesting issues, and craftily enticing the audience with brief glimpses into the characters’ lives and motivations. Ford, playing Billy, gives a standout performance, subtly combining thwarted potential with the impression that he is always just managing to stay in control. At one point, while they are devising a scene, Billy digresses into a moment in his unhappy domestic life, before Aaron switches off the Dictaphone announcing that theatre isn’t the right medium for their story, a rare moment of bitter comedy. It’s a poignant scene, but it illustrates the tension between the play’s two focuses: these complex and damaged individuals and the wider political facts. Without giving too much away, the play ends with an electric moment in which the sufferings and injustices recorded in the piles of documents are vividly brought to life. It’s a shame that this production fully exploits the formal possibilities of the theatre to communicate their message so late on.

Though we leave Aaron and Billy with so much more to be said and asked, and though their performance of the play they have written is slightly disappointing, these are compelling and well-drawn characters. Richardson avoids depicting Aaron as a political martyr/saviour: he is deeply flawed and maddeningly irritating. This is an urgently relevant piece of theatre, and the number of audience members picking up postcards addressed to Chelsea Manning in order to write to her in prison at the end is testament to the effect it had. ‘Private Manning’ engages its audience and provokes us to demand that we be told the truth.

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Alice Harper

at 01:38 on 18th Aug 2016

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‘Private Manning Goes to Washington’ is definitely the most informative show I have seen so far at the Fringe. It delivers a lot of information in a short space of time, and yet it does not feel as though the hour is dragging. The writing is very clever and doesn’t patronise its audience; if anything it is slightly too dense in places. This is not a show that allows you to relax; the audience is expected to concentrate and keep track of what is happening.

The way the production deals with the story of Chelsea Manning and President Obama is unexpected and interesting. Rather than attempting to portray these characters directly, the show follows Billy and Aaron as they attempt to write a play about an imagined meeting between the President and the whistleblower. Apart from making the production seem far more believable in terms of its characters, this approach to telling the story offers a further layer of meaning. By having the audience learn about Private Manning through Aaron and Billy, the show offers an alternative way of thinking about whistleblowing, freedom of information and the balance of power. Their experiences as characters act like a mirror, or perhaps a magnifying glass, to Manning’s story.

The stage set is simple yet clever: a backdrop of cardboard boxes and files is present throughout, like a silent third character. It is subtle enough to remain in the background and yet somehow colours everything the characters say, really coming to the fore in certain moments. The characters are convincing and very watchable; both E. James Ford and Matt Steiner play their respective roles brilliantly. There are moments of real humour, which come out of the juxtaposition between Billy and Aaron, and some simple comedic touches, like Aaron’s apparent obsession with Mountain Dew, which make the characters feel more real. Both actors also have the ability to play both light humour and deep emotion very well.

This show definitely makes its audience think. It is more on the educational than the fun side, but is undoubtedly still entertaining in a different kind of way. Both Billy and Aaron are deep, many layered characters. We do not feel we instantly understand them completely, but are intrigued to learn more. There are some things we never find out about them, which feels frustrating at first and then reinforces the theme of the play: freedom of information and the secrets so many of us aren't privy to.

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