LONDON – To some he's a traitor to his country, to others he's a free-speech hero.
But before Bradley Manning was a public enemy or a cause celebre, the U.S. soldier and alleged WikiLeaks source was a high-school student in west Wales — a pivotal period that is the subject of a new British play.
Manning, the 24-year-old U.S. Army private accused of leaking troves of secret documents to the anti-secrecy website, has a Welsh mother and spent four teenage years living in Haverfordwest, a town of 15,000 people near Britain's western tip.
It is a long way from Haverfordwest to Iraq, where Manning was stationed, or to the U.S. military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where he now resides. That journey is the subject of "The Radicalization of Bradley Manning," a play running this month at three Welsh high schools, including the one Manning attended.
Welsh playwright Tim Price says he felt compelled to write the play once he learned — with astonishment — of Manning's Welsh connection.
"This young soldier — who has attempted to call the president of the U.S. as a defense witness — knows bus timetables around Haverfordwest," Price wrote in a theater blog for The Guardian newspaper. "He knows the trials of schoolboy rugby, and speaks rudimentary Welsh. Once I realized this, Bradley became more than a news story. We had things in common."
Manning, an army intelligence analyst, has been held in military custody for almost two years, including months in solitary confinement. He is awaiting trial for allegedly giving WikiLeaks hundreds of thousands of classified U.S. documents, including battlefield reports from Iraq and Afghanistan, hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables and a video of a deadly 2007 Army helicopter attack.
He has been charged with 22 counts including aiding the enemy, which could result in life imprisonment.
Defense lawyers say the leaked material did little harm to national security. And they argue that Manning was clearly a troubled young soldier who never should have been deployed to Iraq or given access to classified material.
That question is raised during the play, which tracks Manning's progress from gay, geeky teenager to ambivalent soldier, and asks whether others must share blame for his radicalization, his actions and his imprisonment.
"It's not just about this one man. It's about how a whole series of individuals and institutions behaved," said John McGrath, who is directing the play for National Theatre Wales. "One of the things the play looks at is was it appropriate for him to be out there (in Iraq)?"
McGrath says the play is also "a story about the information age — about who can look and see what."
That notion has prompted the company to stream each performance on the Internet, creating what McGrath calls "a hyperconnected theater event." Viewers see the show as if through surveillance cameras — another nod to the themes of eavesdropping and information-sharing — and can chat with other spectators and follow hyperlinks to background information.
That innovation has won the show praise, as has the physical, theatrical staging, which sees six actors take the role of Manning at different times.
McGrath says the response has been overwhelmingly positive, both from the Welsh audiences and from Manning's family, who have attended performances.
The director says there is interest from producers in New York, although he knows that could be a much tougher audience. Manning's case has attracted more sympathy outside the United States than within.
"The issues have clearly divided opinion, and we still don't know what the truth of the matter is," McGrath said. "It would be great to think about presenting it in a wide range of spaces and to a wide range of opinions. I think theater can open up a space for debate."
National Theatre Wales: http://nationaltheatrewales.org
Jill Lawless can be reached at: http://twitter.com/JillLawless