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Manifest review: What does a young boy need to become a good man? Brokentalkers sketch out an answer

Theatre: As the show’s facilitator asks, with chilling rhetorical resonance, would you rather ‘be a warrior in a garden or a gardener in a war?’


Cube, Project Arts Centre, Dublin

“What does he need?” is the driving question of Brokentalkers’ earnest Manifest, the latest iteration of an ongoing collaboration with the artist Fiona Whelan and Rialto Youth Project, which explores the social and cultural forces that shape contemporary masculinity. The issue of what a young boy needs to become a good man is Manifest’s central preoccupation. Security? A mother? Good role models? To be white? To be prepared to fight back or sit back? To be prepared to watch pornography or ignore it? As the show’s facilitator, Feidlim Cannon asks, with chilling rhetorical resonance late in the 60-minute show, would you rather “be a warrior in a garden or a gardener in a war?”

Like much of Brokentalker’s politically probing work, Manifest is framed in faux-documentary style. Here, the action is staged as a community workshop, in which four men from different generations and backgrounds come together to brainstorm ideas about masculinity. Cannon guides them with his questions, which are deliberately designed to personalise the conversation. Soon the men are talking not about “boys” but about a boy. They eventually decide to him call him Ben, and one of them – the youngest, Ben Sullivan – reluctantly steps in to play him. Both for the workshop participants and the audience, this is a strategy for moving beyond the generic and generating empathy: the boy embodied is not just a metaphor but a human being.

The actors – Tobi Balogun, Dara Clear and Fionn Foley, along with Cannon and Sullivan – play versions of themselves, a slippery postdramatic framing device that both reinforces and executes the idea of gender as performance. But there is also artful theatricality to the production, which is directed by Cannon and Gary Keegan. Under Dara Hoban’s lighting design, Ger Clancy’s simple conference-room setting becomes backlit by three oversized phone screens, against which Frank Sweeney offers a visual montage of MMA fighters, male YouTubers and violent video game highlights that illustrate the crowded pressure of external influence against which Ben is fighting to let his own thoughts be heard. Eddie Kay also choreographs several moments in which Sullivan, a trained dancer whose slight physical frame still holds the vulnerability of adolescence, dramatises the internal mental struggle of emergent adulthood.

The final moments feel underdeveloped, as if Brokentalkers still have more questions to ask. The uncertainty feels both hopeful and fitting, however. The boy is a work in progress, as is the man he will become.


Manifest runs at Project Arts Centre, Dublin 2, until Saturday, March 4th

Sara Keating

Sara Keating

Sara Keating, a contributor to The Irish Times, is an arts and features writer