Private Manning goes to Washington

Stan Richardson

The Representatives

theSpace on Niddry St

From 15 August 2016 to 27 August 2016

Rating: *****

Review by Keith Mckenna

Imagine a conversation between Chelsea Manning, who revealed to the world atrocities committed by America, and President Obama, who had campaigned for office promising to create a less belligerent United States and to support whistleblowers.

In Stan Richardson’s play Private Manning goes to Washington, the character Aaron (Matt Steiner) tries to persuade Billy (E James Ford), who works with prisoners on drama, to write such a scene.

The play opens with Billy recalling a moment during his schooldays when, in utter rage at Aaron having taken and revealed some elements of his private journal, he had held him over the ledge of a cliff threatening instant death.

Now, years later, Aaron (Matt Steiner) has tracked him down for help with a special project. He believes they might be able to make a play that wins some justice for Chelsea Manning.

There is, though, a small problem. Aaron is an Internet hacktivist under FBI surveillance and facing criminal charges. That doesn’t sit easily with Billy’s intention to continue working in prisons.

E James Ford and Matt Steiner give an extraordinary performance of considerable psychological depth. They very effectively convey a fractious, often amusing relationship that is driven by a troubled personal history. There are moments when a single look conveys a complex range of feelings.

Stan Richardson’s strong, well-written dialogue is always sharp, sensitive and completely absorbing. The play’s characters are believable and the issues it explores important.

At one point, Aaron argues that, if Billy could choose not to punish Aaron for taking the journal, then Obama could choose to pardon Chelsea.

We get to see the meeting that Billy has imagined taking place, but the final sobering moments of the play are Billy standing alone on the darkening stage. He looks at a mass of Aaron’s files on the American abuse of power, the weight of which Obama will feel as he makes his choice.