No sign of the moon but plenty of atmosphere provided mainly by candlelight as Carlo Gébler’s new play Belfast by Moonlight was given its world premiere at St George’s by the locally based Kabosh theatre company. It’s the oldest Anglican church in the city in use and will soon celebrate its bicentenary, so it proved to be a very appropriate setting for a drama based around 400 years of Belfast since the granting of a Royal Charter in 1613.
In a recent interview with CultureNorthernIreland for What’s On, Gébler explained how the work evolved. He said artistic director Paula McFetridge briefed him not to write a dramatized history but to produce something personal, possibly involving music, that would work in St George’s Church, a play that would be true to that space. He has certainly fulfilled his brief admirably.
Attending a rehearsal of another piece that Kabosh had also commissioned, Gébler came up with the idea that the cast would all be female and would play the role of ghosts or spirits from the past. Each of the six was to have a significant event in their lives that had occurred in or around the Church. It was a concept that worked well.
Gébler says this is not a realistic play. But when the action reached the 20th Century period up to today, I found there were elements of social commentary that had also featured in Crimea Square, the community-led drama I had seen the previous night on the Shankill Road. That play had scenes including the glue sniffers and young people growing up in the era of rock n’ roll. Géblers ghostly spirits materialised at the start, resurrected from the grave to tell their stories in the chancel area of the church. They included a woman who had given up her two year-old son for adoption in the 1960’s and a young woman who was a drug addict.
The play certainly had an impact on the young drama students in the audience: fifteen from Banbridge Academy and another group from various schools in Gébler’s base in Enniskillen. One was particularly moved by the story of one of the spirits from the time of the Great Famine around 1845: Joanna I think she was named. The spirit represented a cottier from County Monaghan where she had lived in a mud cabin. Her husband had died from fever and she came to Belfast with her two young children looking for support but her story too ended in tragedy.
Around 40% of the play is sung by the main actors and the eight-strong female choir, with original music composed by cellist Neil Martin. The choir come from areas as far apart as Dungannon and Donegal. They were conducted by Nigel McClintock, Director of Music at St Peter’s Cathedral in Belfast and have been rehearsing under Emma Gibbins, Director of Music at St George’s.
The actors are Bernadette Brown, Maria Connolly, Roisin Gallagher, Laura Hughes, Carol Moore and Kerri Quinn. As the full moon rises, the six spirits they portray congregate to offer a haunting lament for Béal Feirste and to explore the rich past of the city..
St George’s is on High Street, where the River Farset used to flow. In the play, the rivers of Belfast are a recurring theme presented in song by the choir and the actors. The small rivers flow into the big rivers and the big rivers flow into the sea. Gébler has produced a chorus from their names: “the River Knock, the Connswater, the Purdysburn, the Ligoniel, Derriaghy, Colin, Blackstaff, Forth, Milewater, Cregagh, Farset, Lagan Navigation, the Ravernet”. For vimeo footage by NvTv of the Kabosh production in rehearsal, see here.
There is a stained glass window behind the main altar of the church with the Bible verses “O Death Where is Thy Sting/O Grave Where is Thy Victory”. Very appropriate for the six spirits performing in the Belfast moonlight.
Festival Guest Blogger Michael Fisher