"Exceptional, challenging modern morality play"
by Avril Silk for remotegoat on 23/05/13

'Desert', at Exeter's Bike Shed, is a production by TheMolinoGroup, exploring what happened when Bradley Manning, a private in the American army, releases classified information to WikiLeaks. Giles Roberts and Lucy Farrett give powerful, memorable performances. As Manning, Roberts inhabits a fiercely intelligent character fragmented by bullying; family dysfunction; dislocation and uncertainty about identity and gender. A school friend described him as very quirky, opinionated, political, clever and articulate. Writer Edward Fortes and Giles Roberts' give us all of that.

Lucy Farrett's main character is researching the man seen by some as a traitor, by others as a hero. Her diction, clear as crystal, enabled complex, fast-moving information to be communicated effectively. Projected video clips usefully augmented her investigations. She chillingly played a female American intelligence analyst, whose cruelty and aggression conjured up memories of Lynndie England at Abu Ghraib.

'Desert' directly asks the question Manning posted online; 'If you had unprecedented access to classified networks 14 hours a day 7 days a week for 8+ months, what would you do?' Expanding that, if you had evidence showing your fellow soldiers committing war crimes, would you blow the whistle, or stay silent out of camaraderie or fear? Would you consider, as Manning's accusers do, that you were breaching national security, endangering lives and aiding the enemy? Manning said that he leaked the notorious 'Collateral Murder' clip to show the true cost of war. He was appalled by the bloodlust of the aerial weapons team who fired on a group of men, including a journalist and two Reuters employees, in Baghdad. The helicopter also fired on a van that stopped to help the injured members of the first group; two children in the van were wounded and their father killed. Is this a regrettable, but unavoidable side effect of war? Or does it embody the very evils that, when perpetrated by 'the enemy' are called atrocities?

Despite intense attention, I found the account of the arrest by the Iraqi Federal Police of fifteen detainees for printing anti-Iraqi literature confusing. Manning said it was the event that had affected him the most so it deserves maximum clarification.

Director Bethany Pitts and Edward Fortes, in blurring real and imagined events, and blending text, movement and media, invite their audience to come off the fence about Manning. Such powerful material is disturbing and uncomfortable, but I wanted more as the questions just keep coming, such as, why did an effeminate, troubled young Welsh man chose to join the American army in the first place, and who in their right mind thought him a suitable candidate?

Because of this exceptional, challenging play, I drove home thinking about times when I have stood up for my beliefs, and times when I have betrayed them. Could I have done what this unhappy soldier did?

Whatever Bradley Manning's fate in court, his hope that the leaked material would lead to worldwide discussion and debates, is realised. Whether the reforms he also hoped for will follow, is another matter.


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