Belfast Festival at Queen's: Belfast by Moonlight

Kabosh presents 'Belfast by Moonlight' by Carlo Gébler as part of the 2013 Belfast Festival at Queen's..

Kabosh presents 'Belfast by Moonlight' by Carlo Gébler as part of the 2013 Belfast Festival at Queen's..

One of the great joys of this performance is that it allows access to a building that would otherwise remain inaccessible to many of Belfast citizens. Saint George's is the oldest Anglican Church in use in the city. This production is one of a series of events celebrating its bicentenary in 2016. Situated at the foot of High Street near the Albert Clock, it is a building marking and marked by the history of its site. This is the spot from which the city sprang at the mouth of the Farset, one of the many rivers that flow largely unnoticed through its contemporary urban sprawl. The building itself features an ornately decorated High Church chancel, contrasting with the austerity of the plain post-Reformation nave. The imposing façade was taken from Ballyscullion House in County Londonderry, another of Bishop Hervey's great building project follies.

Belfast by MoonlightSuch hybridity and borrowing are a feature too of this production, designated a “ritual performance” and a “masque” in the show's publicity and script. It interweaves the stories of six female spirits who have come to the church down through the ages with original music by Neil Martin, performed live by a choir under the direction of Nigel McClintock. It is a performance that seeks to animate and in turn be animated by this place from the moment Conleth White's deft lighting design creates the effect of a rising full moon, the light of which will flood through the magnificent stained glass window above the sanctuary. It is this moon that calls these sirens to gather in the church to recite the stories that tie their spirits to this place and this, together with the sense of Belfast as a place of water, provide the major tropes for the city and femininity.

The first to speak is Susannah (Roisin Gallagher), a native Irish noblewoman who has married Bartholomew, one of the English settlers who arrived to take control of the Castle and surrounding lands, under the leadership of Sir Arthur Chichester in the early sixteenth century. When her half-brother kills another of Chichester's men in a gambling feud, Susannah's husband is pressed into the hunt for him that ends in a gruesome torture and execution. Susannah's family exact their own revenge, murdering Bartholomew. Distrusted by the English settlers, Susannah is forced to return to the O'Neill clan, but finds only coldness there; a coldness that turns to hatred that leads to her murder by drowning.

Belfast by MoonlightThis story sets the tone for the five others. Laura Hughes plays Tabitha the wife of an Irish man who joins the British yeomanry a century later to escape the hardships of farming, only to return from his first tour of duty, haunted by the cruelty he has had to inflict to enforce the rule of the Crown. Maria Connolly presents Johanna who walks from Monaghan to Belfast with her two children to escape the ravages of the Great Famine, only to be separated from them when she is taken to the fever hospital. Having lost her children, she turns to drink and prostitution. At the beginning of the twentieth century Phillippa (Carol Moore) postpones the intimacy of her marriage for eight years until she has gathered the money to pay for all the things that society expects of a respectable marriage, only to lose her fiancé in the Great War. Fifty years on, Roberta (Kerri Quinn) comes to St George's to hand over her two children for adoption so that she can pursue her career as a model and a singer. Her guilt at her actions is enflamed when she discovers that her now adult son led the attempted rape and murder of a young woman. Contemporary Belfast is represented by Lilian (Bernadette Brown), a hopeless addict who cannot (and will not) give up her drug habit that she supports through petty theft, burglary and prostitution.

These are like Pirandello's six characters, each destined to endlessly repeat her tale of destruction at every rising of a full moon. Each figure is characterised by a particular incident, a snapshot standing in for a whole life. Her agency in each event seems bounded by gender roles and a curious passivity that produces a sense of this as a lament for a city and its womanhood. Yet, the final sequences of the performance insist that there is some hope to be wrought in the perseverance of women like them through the ages and that their performance serves as a kind of testimony to that hope. Even in a church, the proposition that the reverence bequeathed by the moon on the dead spirits offers transcendence over the lived history of pain is unconvincing.

This is a pity since the individual playing by these six women is deft and engaging in their individual roles and as an ensemble. They sing too and one of the most moving moments is the antiphon between the choir at the back of the nave and the spirits just outside the chancel that floods the space. McFetridge's direction makes effective use of the inherent theatricality of the space: the altar screen a kind of framing proscenium. Elle Kent's costumes both unify and distinguish each character: the cut and style referring to their historic origin, each predominantly white yet shot through with slate grey which seeps into earthy browns at the hemline. Gébler's writing has a fine literary style and is well-executed. Such qualities of production create many beautiful moments worthy of the space; unfortunately Gébler's dated versions of womanhood do not honour sufficiently the real Belfast women whose actions in life have wrought its histories.

Tom Maguire is a Senior Lecturer in Theatre Studies at the University of Ulster.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Belfast Festival at Queen's: Belfast by Moonlight by Carlo Gébler

Produced by Kabosh
In St George's Church, Belfast

Directed by Paula McFetridge

Composed by Neil Martin

Costume Design: Elle Kent

Lighting Design: Conleth White

With: Bernadette Brown, Maria Connolly, Roisin Gallagher, Laura Hughes, Carol Moore and Kerri Quinn.


Presented as part of the 2013 Belfast Festival at Queen's.