Shining City

Circa Two, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

08/09/2007 - 13/10/2007

Production Details

by conor mcpherson
direction: danny mulheron, miranda manasiadis, jason white

A man has seen the ghost of his dead wife.  He comes to another man, a counsellor, to try to make sense of his world, to find his place in it. What follows is a struggle between the living and the dead that affects both men forever.

Conor McPherson is one of the most celebrated contemporary Irish playwrights.  Ever since The Weir opened in London in 1997, when he was just 25, McPherson has held audiences and critics spellbound.  As well as The Weir his work includes This Lime Tree Bower (both seen at Circa Theatre, in 2001 and 2004 respectively), and a quiver of critically acclaimed plays and films which have led to several international awards.  McPherson grew up, works and lives in the Dublin of his play.

Emmet Michael Kennedy is a native of Dublin also.  A man who taught TM, stood in the general Northern Ireland and the European elections, was long term friend and neighbour to Nobel Peace Prize winner John Hume, and drank tea with Gerry Adams, he came to acting via Conor McPherson’s work.  News of this production of Shining City brought him from his (now) home on Waiheke Island specifically to work on it.

Jason Whyte plays the counsellor.  His work in film, TV, and theatre has taken him all round NZ, to a great variety of parts, and brought him Chapman Tripp and NZ Screen awards.  He has just appeared on stage in the very different Fat Pig at Circa, and is about to appear in Pig Hunt at BATS.  “I was drawn by the play,” he says, “working with Danny, working with the intimacy of the theatre space, with McPherson’s special style of theatre.”

Miranda Manasiadis, singer, dancer, actor, director, writer is well-known for her work, at Circa (most recently Drawer of Knives) and Downstage as well as her own award-winning devised works.  She has just come back from Greece where she has been working on more theatre and writing a play.  Séan de Burca was brought up in Donegal.  By way of a stint commercial fishing in France and Galway, the construction industry, and travel he has come with passion to NZ theatre, a can do world he sees in NZ, and the varied lushness of the land.

Danny Mulheron who leads this team is well-known for such work as The Tutor, Daylight Atheist, The Love of Human Kind, The Bach, Drawer of Knives to mention a very few. Danny has been concentrating on NZ plays but, he says, “this one proved irresistible.  It’s funny.  It’s brilliant.  It’s more than a play, it’s a warning. The cast has come together in the weirdest way possible. Kennedy has come from left field and has astonished me.  From the start Séan is like a young Robert Shaw, pathetic and threatening in the same breath. Jason is going to surprise people, and the wonderful Miranda has been involved in Shining City since I began this project.  It is scary and challenging when the cast brings more to the play than I could ever do.  I know no-one believes me anymore, but I really think this play will be my best work.”

in order of appearance:
jason white
emmet michael kennedy
miranda manasiadis
séan de burca

natasha james - lighting
dennis hearfield - set and graphic
stephen gallagher - sound

iain cooper, john hodgkins, eileen mccann, dennis hearfield, danny mulheron

marjorie mckee (including publicity photograph)
bridget kidd - website

production team
corinne simpson - stage manager and costume
natasha james - technical operation
suzanne blackburn - house manager

thanks to
museum hotel; stephen a'court photography; blue bicycle flicks; ricoh; fullstop; the lovely anita fijn; samson & delilah; radiolive; circa's generous sponsors; all the people from circa, who support the production and the season. 

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The ghosts of guilt and shame: truly eerie and compelling

Review by Thomas LaHood 27th Sep 2007

This riveting, taut piece of dramatic spookery nearly slipped through my fingers, but I’m very pleased I was able to get to it in the end.  Conor McPherson’s Irish ghost story of lives haunted by guilt and shame rewards its audience with the same satisfaction as a gripping novelette, the same page-turning compulsiveness and sense of transportation.

Dennis Hearfield’s set design extends this quality, reducing the physical space of Circa Studio down to an absolute minimum to create an intimate, closeted feel.  As we enter, priest-turned-therapist Ian (Jason Whyte) busies himself in his new Dublin apartment/office.  The forced perspective of the set and our proximity to Whyte instantly create the sensation of burrowing into the story and burrowing into the characters’ lives.  As soon as Ian’s new client John (Emmet Michael Kennedy) arrives and the dialogue begins, we’re away.

The story is  simple but dense with nuance.  Delicate, complex themes permeate the simple narrative in a most beautiful, pungent manner; of repressed modern male chauvinism, of our retreat from both institutional religion and superstition, of the resulting lack of ethical accountability and the false redemption of psychotherapy. 

The delivery and presence of the cast is crucial, and no mean feat under the microscope of this intimate staging.  In this production the performances uniformly excel, and the interest and pace of the story never flags despite scenes that are at times very long.  It’s a very tight, very complete hour and a half, and no energy is wasted.

Kennedy in particular is outstanding as John, the bereaved man haunted by the ghost of his dead wife.  The role commands the lion’s share of the text, delivered more or less as monologue and necessitating the range of volatile emotions accessed by a therapy patient.  Kennedy never puts a foot wrong.  The ups, downs and inside outs of this man are laid bare in front of us and we are compelled all the way.

Whyte’s Ian is also pitch perfect, showing the same agonising conscience-wrangling as John but beneath a too-solid shell of rational restraint.  It’s a role that truly demonstrates Whyte’s calibre as an actor, and he demonstrates a precise naturalism, fleshing out a character to whom we are only offered slivers of insight through the text. 

Likewise Miranda Manasiadis, in a single scene, conveys Ian’s estranged wife with total credibility and excruciating emotional tone.  From the second she enters to the moment she leaves the stage we are plunged into the kind of relationship trauma that we all hope never to endure in our own lives; even if we’d rather not see it on stage, we cannot look away.  All credit to her (and Whyte) for playing this straight from the guts and so avoiding the kind of straining usually employed in high melodrama.

Newcomer Sean de Burca is onstage for the briefest time of all, and has an enigmatic presence on stage.  His nervous tension is perfect for his flinty role, though it may not be an entirely conscious state.

Natasha James’ lighting and Stephen Gallagher’s sound design work in neatly and powerfully with the overall production design.  We believe totally in the harsh reality that Ian has shut away but that penetrates nonetheless through his grimy windows; in the existence of a dingy stairwell through the apartment door and the leaky tap in the kitchenette that we never see.  The hidden microphones that amplify and echo the sounds on stage during scene transitions are inspired.  They evoke a sensation of time overlapping, of dimensions layered atop one another that suits perfectly the spectral subject matter of the play.

The final moment that ends the play is somewhat timidly conveyed, and doesn’t really fit the tightly designed feel of the rest of the show, but it’s a single jarring note in an otherwise fastidiously harmonious production. 

Director Danny Mulheron has fully grasped the appeal of McPherson’s text, and elicited excellent results from the cast and designers alike to create a truly eerie and compelling modern ghost story.
For more production details, click on the title at the top of this review. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News.  


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Engaging, emotive and inspiring

Review by Melody Nixon 18th Sep 2007

Dense monologues and threads of the supernatural interweave with psycho-analysis in this examination of the real and metaphorical ghosts that haunt us. Shining City pulls at the heart of what is Real in our everyday relationships, and characters who could be the Willy Lomans of the 2000s show us delicately yet effusively that ‘attention must be paid’.

Former priest turned therapist Ian (Jason Whyte) has a good rational view of the correct order of things, yet interactions with the mother of his child Naesa (played with suitable melodramatics by Miranda Manasiadis) and a local lad (Séan de Burca) reveal his state of inner confusion. In Ian’s sessions with his client John (played with superb wit and conviction by Emmet Michael Kennedy) the roles slowly reverse as one man’s life improves and the other’s becomes more searching. Through these characters the Shining City of Dublin presents its ghosts; and they are both the materialisation of the inner emotions and ‘issues’ which haunt us; and the usually invisible spiritual realm which can too easily be discounted as influential in our lives.

Along with collaborators Whyte and Manasiadis, director Danny Mulheron has used space, movement and particularly the power of the ‘chair’ to full advantage to convey these themes, seating the actors in a close and focused space. Set design by Dennis Hearfield creates an intimate sense of almost-claustrophobia in his boxed-in Dublin apartment; the constricted framing contributes strongly the play’s emphasis on personal relations and the private.

Brilliantly moody lighting by Natasha James adds to Shining City’s stark naturalism, particularly in its glorious reflections of the early morning on the ‘windows’ of the apartment. Sound effects, designed by Stephen Gallagher, are most notable for the eerie echo which assists with supernatural themes and allows for quick and effective scene changes by jolting viewers back into sensory awareness between the heavy tracts of speech.

John is the key storyteller of the play, fully endowed with the Irish gift of the gab. On opening night Emmet Michael Kennedy seemed to miss a few points in the script, but the colloquial nature of his banter allowed for these and the audience easily forgave forgotten or replaced words and phrases. The staging of his speeches showed excellent direction; during much of his long monologues Kennedy sits centre stage, static, and so allows the audience to relax and feel safely led into his intense and gripping confessions. When those monologues risk lulling us into numbness Kennedy stands and paces, immediately setting the audience on edge again by alerting us to the fact he could now potentially leave the space, or react physically.

At certain moments staging does seem to jar however. In the first encounter between therapist and client, Jason Whyte positions himself with his back to the audience in a swiveling chair. While this adds to the sense of awkwardness the nervous John is projecting, and hints at Ian’s precariousness in his new role as counselor, it also distracts us from fully engaging with the scene. Our discomfort is relieved in subsequent therapy sessions when Whyte positions himself in a sofa chair to the side; and perhaps this is Mulheron’s intention here, to create an increasing sense of ease; but I found the initial scene too awkward to fully suspend my disbelief about Whyte and Kennedy’s respective roles.

Likewise the staging of the final scene seems to be framed a little too obscurely to allow for a strong base of narrative from which to let the necessary ambiguity and open possibilities fly. Through a few words from Ian mentioned in passing we are to make assumptions about the new direction his life is taking, and when a mysterious actor (not mentioned in the programme; and seemingly Miranda Manasiadis) appears in the scene, it is not immediately clear exactly who we were being presented with. The sudden reactions and dropping of boxes seemed too to detract from the tension of the moment with its melodramatic cliché.

Not to dismiss at all the impact and impressiveness of this production though; these were small blips in an otherwise thoroughly engaging, emotive and inspiringly produced play. Writer Conor McPherson clearly has a gift for capturing those aspects of the human condition many of us are aware of and can relate to, but cannot articulate until they are presented to us in the lives of others. Shining City is indeed a shining and intricately layered experience, and here it is smoothly presented by a visibly dedicated, accomplished and passionate crew.

Originally published in The Lumière Reader.


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World of loneliness and guilt

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 11th Sep 2007

The shining city of the title of the latest Circa 2 production is never explained (presumably it refers to Dublin) but nevertheless the play glistens even though it is about the darker side of modern urban life. It is marvelously acted by a quartet of actors and sensitively directed by a triumvirate of directors.

Conor McPherson, the 35 year-old Irish playwright who is clearly in the running to be mentioned along side the likes of Sheridan, Wilde, Shaw, O’Casey, Synge, Beckett and Friel, creates in his distinctive style a world of loneliness and  moral unease stemming from the emotional complexities of love and guilt-haunting echoes of the past.

As he did with his most successful play, The Weir, and his trio of linked monologues This Lime-Tree Bower, both of which have been presented at Circa, McPherson seduces the audience without theatrics into being gripped in the events of the parallel lives of the two men in Shining City. However, he can use theatrics and comedy to masterly effect when he wants to.

He slowly builds the tension through spare, naturalistic dialogue and long monologues which reveal the emotional lives of his central characters: John, a businessman who has recently lost his wife in a car crash but believes he has seen her ghost, and Ian, a novice therapist, who was once a Catholic priest but is now in a troubled relationship with his girlfriend, Neasa, who has a child by him.

We also get to meet Neasa in one emotionally charged scene and later Laurence, a young father who is short of money, whom Ian brings back one night to his newly established office. Emotional isolation, displacement (none of the characters has a home), and an overriding sense of guilt seep through the play just as the echoes of some of the actions of the characters reverberate ominously through the theatre at the end of each scene.

Dennis Heartfield has reduced Circa 2’s cinemascope-like stage to a much tighter rectangle and in it he has placed Ian’s shabby office set up in what was probably an old warehouse and it perfectly captures the run-down, lonely world the characters inhabit.

Emmet Michael Kennedy is superb as John as he haltingly tells Ian about seeing his wife’s ghost and he handles the long monologue about John’s humiliating but comic visit to a brothel and his botched venture into adultery with a rare truth, but most moving of all is the growing trust shown by John in Ian and his eventual return to something like a normal life.

Jason Whyte is also superb as Ian, listening with a dedicated concern to another’s problems but showing through subtle detail Ian’s own disquiet with his life as he struggles to explain to Miranda Manasiadis’s excellent distraught Neasa his inability to love her. Sean de Burca in one short scene presents Laurence as both a threatening presence as well as a compassionate lost soul with the same naturalism that the others bring to their roles.

Not to be missed.
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Testing our faith in ourselves?

Review by John Smythe 09th Sep 2007

Somehow the dingy Dublin apartment with its paint-peeling brick wall, smeared windows, cheap, plain furniture and large aluminium-shaded interrogator’s lamp makes me think we’re in for some Pinteresque menace. But it’s more of a ghost story, although if you summarised the stories that emerge from Conor McPherson’s strangely-named Shining City, they’d look like plot-lines for a rather melodramatic soap opera.

A man (Ian) has left the church for a woman (Naesa) who worked to support him while he retrained as a therapist but when she had their first child he left her. Now he has rented the above-mentioned room and is taking on his first client. John is bereaved, guilt-ridden and freaked out by seeing his dead wife’s ghost …

John’s telling, confronting and processing of it all, through monologue more than dialogue, while Ian listens, forms the substantive part of the play. His three scenes are intercut with a visit from Naesa and an interaction between Ian and another young man (called Laurence in the script but never referred to by name out loud). The ending is a pretty standard one for a ghost story but hey, it has to end somewhere.

That the whole play doesn’t come over as corny is a testament to McPherson’s skill as a storyteller, the authenticity of his insights into common human experiences and relationship dilemmas, and the deep-rooted truth that informs the performances and production style, co-directed by Danny Mulheron, Miranda Manasiadis (who plays Naesa) and Jason Whyte (who plays Ian).

In this god-forsaken boxed-in room – designed by Denis Hearfield, lit by Natasha James – up a storey or so with a door-release buzzer that doesn’t work, no-one is at home. Everyone is in transition (speaking of which, the scene transitions are deftly done). Their ‘real lives’ are elsewhere and that fact that our point of contact with them is confined to this box makes our imaginations an essential tool in making the unfolding drama real.  

Ian’s troubled soul, inept handling of his own life and sincere attempt to meet the needs of his client become subtly manifest in Jason Whyte’s focused performance. Miranda Manasiadis gives her all to the one scene she gets as Ian’s fiancée, igniting the atmosphere in a way that makes me want her to return – and it does seem odd, dramaturgically, that she doesn’t.

It’s the slow reveal of John’s deeply ordinary yet rarely so clearly exposed story that gives the play its spine, and it would be tempting for an actor to embellish the welter or words with vocal and physical flourishes to keep it interesting. Thankfully the quiet but clear-voiced Emmet Michael Kennedy (a Dublinite and TM teacher now resident on Waiheke Island, who has only recently come to acting), trusts the essential truth of John’s story and maintains a rarely demonstrative everyman persona that would not make you look twice at him in the street, while making every bit of his behaviour, in his recent past and in the room with Ian, utterly compelling.

Making his debut as an actor (discovered by Mulheron behind the counter in a hardware store) is Sean de Burca from Donegal. Although he was a little low on vocal projection on opening night, the enigmatic dispassion he brings to the role of Laurence is most effective, not least for its total contrast to the emotive intensity of Naesa. (No, I cannot reveal more about the character here.)

Given two of the four actors are genuine Irishmen, it’s a wise move for Whyte and Manasiadis to stick to their own voices. After all, why shouldn’t a Kiwi have gone to an Irish seminary close to where his brother was living, then met a fellow Kiwi at the very time his faith was wavering?

That the play, and this production of it, works so well has everything to do with its characters being adrift in a world and confronting concerns that anyone can relate to. "We know nothing, says John. "We just barely hang in there." Maybe testing of faith is the common denominator, not in a religious sense but simply at the level of believing in ourselves and the value of our relationships. So the question of believing in ghosts or not is more of a metaphor than a direct question: "It’s not what you see, it’s what you make of it."

Which brings me no closer to understanding why the play is named for the poetic term, Shining City. (Ronald Reagan once said, "America is a shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere" but somehow I don’t think McPherson is alluding to that.) Any suggestions?


Brian Hotter September 21st, 2007

As a writer it was a pleasure to watch this play unfold before me. Although at times the drop in dramatic tension had me struggling to pay attention it was the amount of my attention it demanded that I loved. That I had to pay attention. What Emmet Michael lacks in acting experience he more than makes up for in his subtle performance, I was taken aback by the fact his character seemed to start out being five feet tall and grew from scene to scene until he was towering over his counsellor. Jason Whyte anchors the play for me and I’m sure no body else doubts it; he is an actor at the top his game and after year and years of experience he has reach one of the pinnacles of his abilities, no doubt he has more to show. My only real problem was with the end of the play itself; sure it was nice to see the transformation of John into a stable non ghost seeing fella. But what about Ian? Is he really back with his wife? If yes what does that say about his sexual experience? That like John’s bad sexual experiences (and morally questionable in the world of the play) he moved on from them and has become a better person? I’m not sure. One small other gripe is with the start of the love scene that ended in a blackout. Why? With the ultra-naturalism of the rest of the production: from the unpacking while the audience entered to the drawn-out answering of the door? Why would you end this on a black out? Why not have the characters turn off the lights? I found this a little jarring. But all is all a marvellous production. So good to see such a good script carried off so well.

e.v September 12th, 2007

i have to agree with your review of this wonderful production john. im so glad that john and lawrence were played by irish natives..especially john, as he is just so irish! my family have emigrated there and i spent a good bit of time living there and i smiled throughout the show when he spoke of what is now my familiar..referencing shops i know and turns of phrase. having ian and neassa as kiwi's worked and was a good choice...nothing worse that a half arsed irish accent to spoil the illusion! sean was very soft spoken tonight but that felt ok..a nice balance to ians nervous ramblings. i wasnt too fond of miranda in her role as neassa but for me its a small blip on my enjoyment of this show. this has turned into an epic comment!! just wanted to express my (rare) agreement with you john :)

John Smythe September 10th, 2007

Quite right, Martyn – trust a lighting guy to know: “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden... Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works ..." Does Conor McPherson expect us to know this, and to automatically give a Catholic context to any story set in Dublin? Perhaps. And given the closed-in setting, hidden away from public gaze – the makeshift therapist’s room as confessional – I suppose it is an ironic title. Yet at the same time it’s an apt one, because (a) the truth will out no matter what, and (b) in theatre the light is shone on the secrets, we see it all, the private does become public. So what about the ghost story dimension, then? Is it a metaphor for faith in a spiritual dimension, or has he just used the genre as a peg for his more serious quest: mankind’s endless search for a sense of self worth?

martyn roberts September 10th, 2007

'Shining City' as a reference also links to the sermon on the mount, matthew 5:14-15. 'Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works...' and there is the reference to a city on a hill that cannot be hidden. Haven't seen the play yet so this historical reference may be completely irrelevant, however given your description of the piece there may well be a guilty catholic or two lying about here.

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