Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Fringe Theatre - The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning – St Thomas of Aquin's School – four stars The Secret Agent – Traverse Theatre – three stars The Islanders – Underbelly – four stars

When whistle-blowing American soldier Bradley Manning was found guilty 
of espionage at the end of July, the old ideals of truth, justice and 
the American way suddenly seemed like more of a hollow mockery than 
ever before. It also made The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning, Tim 
Price's dramatic rendering of Manning's story for National Theatre 
Wales, look like the most pertinent play on the planet.

When NTW first presented John E McGrath's production, it was in the 
Welsh school that Manning attended. For their Fringe run they do 
something similar, with the noises off and camouflage-clad figures 
occupying classrooms as the audience enter suggesting something a lot 
stronger than mere playground stuff. Once seated on four sides of the 
school's echoey assembly area, the audience witness Manning's course 
 from a displaced childhood between small-town Wales and America, as a 
bullied gay computer geek came to develop a disrespect for authority 
that would eventually bring about his downfall.

  Price does this by flitting between time-zones, from the little 
classroom protests that shaped Manning, to the stateside McJobs he 
seemed destined for, to his father refusing to pay him through college, 
and to Baghdad, where the grunts watched murders of civilians on their 
laptops as if they were video games. By having all six performers play 
Manning at various points, passing his glasses between them like a 
weapon, it suggests a common cause in which anyone could have done what 
he did.

All of this is energetically realised in a production which might well 
be NTW's Black Watch moment. Indeed, one can't help but note the odd 
stylistic nod to the National Theatre of Scotland's most popular show 
to date. McGrath and his team take things other ways, however, and 
when, with seemingly nothing to lose, Manning does leak the thousands 
of documents, it's with his head-phones on, as his action becomes as 
liberating and euphoric as a night surrounded by drag queens on the 
dancefloor of a gay disco. The documents themselves are thrown into the 
air like bunting at Mardi-gras.

The stark message that Manning may be about to be imprisoned for the 
rest of his life for telling the truth, is the starkest of come-downs 
in this vital piece of work, which every American politician should be 
frog-marched to see post-haste.
Until August 25th

When Joseph Conrad published his novel, The Secret Agent, in 1907,his 
tale of a reluctant agent provocateur who becomes embroiled in an 
anarchist plot to blow up Greenwich Observatory was an early example of 
the political thriller. In the post 9/11 age, it looks like even more 
of a template for the long-term effects of random acts of terrorism.

In Theatre O's hands, Conrad's story becomes something else again, as 
the company debunk any kind of straight literary adaptation in favour 
of a melting pot of post-modern vaudeville. Opening with the company 
inviting the audience to take a peek into their Cabinet of Desire, 
things eventually open out to the main story, in which Verloc becomes 
an agent for mysterious 'foreign powers.' At home with his wife and 
family, all seems normal, but when things go horribly wrong, Verloc's 
life literally blows up in his face.

Joseph Alford's production, devised with his cast of five and scripted 
by Matthew Hurt, fuses Victorian music hall, silent movie melodrama and 
magic lantern moodiness to make for something which initially appears 
charming but slights. As it slow-burns its way to an ending in which 
the waste of human life for a higher cause is brought tragically home, 
The Secret Agent becomes a darkly imagined catalogue of all the madness 
and despair it can muster.
Until August 25th

Before Eddie Argos became lead singer with smarty-pants alt-pop combo, 
Art Brut, and before Amy Mason became a writer and performer, they went 
out with each other as teenagers, living it up in a grotty bed-sit  
straight out of a kitchen-sink novel.  At some point in 1999, they ran 
away for a cheap holiday in a B&B on the Isle of Wight, before breaking 
up and going on to live very different lives.

Nearly fifteen years on, Mason and Argos have returned to the scene of 
the crime by way of this quite lovely lo-fi musical, which charts a 
rites of passage that moves between Mason's angsty adolescence and 
Argos' utter fecklessness in a dead-end town where mix-tapes, Top of 
the Pops and indie discos are the only salvation.

Moving between Mason's spoken-word monologues and Argos' equally naked 
songs that counterpoints her version of events with his own, this is as 
raw as it gets in a charmingly low-key  rites of passage that's both 
poignant and funny. Where Mason is deadpan in her delivery, 
Argos,accompanied by Jim Moray on guitar, is expansive and needy. 
Opposites attract indeed in this lovely little show that lays bare a 
set of dog-eared but still cherished postcards from a very English 
indie-pop romance.
Until August 25th

The Herald, August 14th 2013

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