Manifest. Image Ste Murray.
A discussion on masculinity is desperately needed. Manifest, part of What Does He Need? - a long term, multi-layered project by Fiona Whelan, Brokentalkers and Rialto Youth Project aims to do just that. Exploring how boys and men are shaped by and influence the world they live in. Yet despite its noble ambitions, Manifest falls short of its intentions. Rehashing well worn tropes, it retells the same old story. Men are a cruel singularity, like serial killers, being predominantly white, heteronormative, shaped by trauma to be emotionally stunted, to be violent towards others, especially towards women. That there are multiple masculinities (e.g., pro-feminist and gay masculinities) is never explored. Nor how growth and shifts within the heterosexual paradigm over the decades has seen it becoming positively reconstructed. Instead, masculinity is as singular as the child catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang; a one dimensional supervillain preying on innocent children, eager to fashion them after its own twisted image.
If Manifest can prove thematically trying, theatrically, under Feidlim Cannon and Gary Keegan’s direction, it’s often tiresome. Five men (Tobi Balogun, Feidlim Cannon, Dara Clear, Fionn Foley and Ben Sullivan) introduce themselves as part of a workshop exploring masculinity. They sit, draw attention to how they sit, then begin arguing about raising a hypothetical child with the same rigour as four year olds arguing who’s the best Peppa Pig character. Given Cannon’s demeanour you could be forgiven for thinking it might be tongue in cheek. Alas, there isn’t much humour outside of a couple of satirical sniggers. Meanwhile, Cannon as facilitator, a kind of poor man’s Jordan Peterson, issues reductive diatribes as if conducting an Iron John retreat. A direct commentary on certain 'believe him,' alpha male advocates, Cannon employs leading questions to set up generalised positions: men shun emotion, men are violent, men commit violence against women, men are more likely to commit suicide or leave the family. Some modestly amusing costume changes, some soft toys representing rejected vulnerability, and some flat choreography are all upstaged by Cannon’s hair, which proves the most visually interesting thing onstage. Ger Clancy’s ho hum set comprised of five chairs and three thin screens being even less interesting than it sounds.
What do we learn? Little we didn’t already know. In fairness, masculinity as a performance is made visually evident via Sarah Foley's costumes and the use of physical exaggerations, such as the karate display. As is the need for male approval, even as men can’t agree, complicating notions of a singular masculine narrative. Yet alternate positions and counterarguments, where acknowledged, are never explored with the same rigour. Including gay masculinities, or the alleged special relationship between mother and child, which here is given a nod of approval from physics. A blind prejudice that has seen Irish courts inflict untold trauma on many children, never mind fathers. But Manifest flinches from the hard questions, restating old paradigms as foregone conclusions. Violence as initiation into the male, animal pack; its roots in poverty, class, environment and a dysfunctional education system never addressed. The solution; as men mimic what they see to impress other men we need more positive role models in the media and on the street. True, but it's a lot more complicated than that. There’s still that poverty thing, for a start.
Thankfully the misogynistic posturing of violent alpha males doesn’t go unchallenged anymore. Often it’s challenged by other men, other masculinities, and the need to remain vigilant is imperative. But it's not the whole story of masculinities, leaving many feeling excluded when it's put forward as the only working model worth talking about. In its depiction of masculinity as a particular heteronormative identity Manifest plays to the crowd, both its message and medium disappointingly underdeveloped. Those looking for a substantive theatrical investigation into modern masculinity in an encompassing and meaningful way might want to keep looking. Manifest still has a ways to go before getting there.
Manifest, presented by Brokentalkers in a co-production with Project Arts Centre & Town Hall Theatre, Galway, runs at Project Arts Centre until March 4.
For more information visit Project Arts Centre