'Manhattan Whispers' and 'Mission'

'Manhattan Whispers' and 'Mission' by Gary Duggan at Theatre Upstairs. Photo: Ste Murray

'Manhattan Whispers' and 'Mission' by Gary Duggan at Theatre Upstairs. Photo: Ste Murray

Shibari, Garry Duggan's debut play for Ireland's National Theatre, explored, amongst many other things, the experience of the non-national living in Ireland today. This double bill of his earlier work, which ran concurrently at Theatre Upstairs, 2001's Manhattan Whispers and 2008's Mission, explores dislocation in the city of New York, be it the Irish experience as seen through the eyes of three unnamed characters in Manhattan Whispers or, as in Mission, that of a first-generation native New Yorker. Pride, ignorance and a troubled search for one's self are core themes to the plays showing on and off Abbey Street. But it is here that Duggan's voice feels most free to paint the paranoia and instability of a people in disarray.

A trio of monologues, Manhattan Whispers features three Irish visitors to the Big Apple, whose psyches unspool as they capitulate to the city's constant throb. Telling their tale against a white-tiled backdrop and flickering gel lights, the city's searing heat, its immutable buzz, its continual presence was rendered on the bodies and brains of the characters, who trace the sweat as it slides and gathers in their orifices, their minds going at ninety with thoughts of escape, release and relief. From Brian Bennett's backpacker who just has to move to mute the manic contradictions within his mind (to make a mark yet be imperceptible), to the punishing comedown that pickles Liana O’Cleirigh till she snaps, and Shaun Dunne’s tearaway who may draw solace from the city's soothing pulse but only as it drowns out the pull of his past.

Recounted on a platform, the stale air, the bugs and the rodents, the taunting sounds and stares all build up an atmosphere of a people coming apart at the seams, their insides spilling out through liquid and linguistic means. Like the dance music referenced throughout, Duggan's script is rhythmic, drawing on breaks in the characters' thought processes and poetic beats to drive the action forward and his point home, using their rising paranoia or doubt to build each piece to a crescendo.

Keeping up appearances is a unifying theme. From the unnerving gawk of passers-by in Manhattan Whispers to the questioning taunts of Paul (Bennett) and Walt (Dunne) in Mission, Duggan keeps us conscious of the all-seeing eye of society, the snap judgments we are all prone to, and the sense of belonging that we take for granted but which might not be as solid as we thought.

This is the case for Lucia (O’Cleirigh), a city girl with Dominican roots who strikes up a conversation with some safe looking out-of-towners who shatter her guile and her presumptions of differentiation ("This is America. Everyone is American") in Mission. Race, religion and regional pride are riffed upon and left reverberating throughout the piece like a struck chord that saw first time director Duggan build the tension by focusing his performers as much on their joie de vivre as their mounting menace, leaving us unsure as to what they were at. His decision, as playwright, to keep the characters from explicitly revealing motive and intent heightened the sense of dread and suspicion that has left its mark on New York, and by proxy, the world since the towers fell.

Using a cast best known for devising and performing in their own post dramatic fare, often playing exaggerated versions of themselves (As You Are Now, So Once Were We and I am a Home Bird (It's very Hard) Duggan drew out restrained turns, with Dunne, in Manhattan Whispers, a particularly natural presence.

The question of to whom the characters are speaking in Manhattan Whispers, could have been more thoroughly examined, with Bennett appearing to talk to himself and the other two to the audience. A question asked by a character being answered by an audience member raised a smile, but it took us out of the world and signified confusion as to what our role was.

Otherwise Duggan made a strong directorial debut. He captured the mood of a city and its imprint on the consciousness of its people in a way that was way more succinct than his play on around the corner.

Caomhan Keane is a freelance journalist who has written about theatre for The Irish Times and the Sunday Independent and is senior theatre writer at entertainment.ie

  • Review
  • Theatre

'Manhattan Whispers' and 'Mission' by Gary Duggan

15 - 20 October, 2012

Produced by Theatre Upstairs
In Theatre Upstairs @ Lanigan’s Bar

Written and Directed by Gary Duggan

Set, Sound, Lighting Design: Andy Cummins, Karl Shiels, Laura Honan

With: Liana O’Cleirigh, Shaun Dunne, Brian Bennett