Belfast by Moonlight

Author Carlo Gebler on evocking bygone Belfast for a new play debuting at the Belfast Festival at Queen's

400 years ago, there was no Belfast. All there was on the site of where the city now stands were a few small houses and a church, which was located roughly where St George’s Church in High Street stands today.

In 1613, a group of wily magnates and adventurers obtained from the Crown a charter that allowed the area that became Belfast to return two Members of Parliament to the old Irish parliament in Dublin. The idea was that these MPs would get the legislation through that would underpin and catalyze the creation of a city.

I am making a complex process seem simple here, but then this is not a history lecture.

2013, it will not have escaped your attention, is the 400th anniversary of the Charter of Belfast. In order to celebrate that important event, Kabosh Theatre Company came up with the ingenious proposition of producing a play in St George’s Church that would acknowledge, explore and amplify the history of the city. Four centuries is, after all, quite an important birthday.

Kabosh have a long and glorious history of producing plays specially written for and tailored to unusual and unexpected places. However, when they approached me to write what eventually became Belfast by Moonlight, they were very clear that it was not to be a pageant play or a dramatized history of Belfast.

Artistic director Paula McFetridge's brief was to produce something personal, possibly involving music, that would work in St George's Church, a play that would be true to that space.

At about the time the commission was mooted, I attended a read-through of Inventor’s Fair, an ensemble piece that Kabosh had also commissioned, and as I sat listening to the lines being delivered (lines I’d written and lines other playwrights had written) it suddenly occurred to me (and I mean suddenly) how I might do the Belfast play – the cast would be entirely female.

They would be ghosts. They would be ghosts from Belfast’s past, from 1613 to the now. They would all have had traumatic lives and they would also all have had, in the course of their lives, an event of significance in or around St George’s Church.

As ghosts, they would have no form or shape or body. They would not exist in the natural world except (because I’m in charge of the mythology here, and I’ve decided this is how it’s going to be) the one night each month when the moon is full. And on that night they would become solid, actual, corporeal, and because of the significance of St George’s, it’s there, in that church, that they would materialize.

They would be constellated by the space. Because in the case of each woman what’s happened in the church is so significant, they would talk about nothing else but their past lives on the night of the full moon, when they would come back to life.

Once I had settled on this structure and conceit, it followed that there would have to be a choir who would act as a chorus, and who would interrogate and explain and mediate (in song), and finally that the piece would have to be written in heightened non-realistic language.

I’ve been writing for many years and I like to think I’ve learnt how to make people believe that the worlds I’ve created in words are credible. Because it is not a realistic play, the challenge when writing Belfast by Moonlight was to forget everything I’ve learnt about writing contemporary stories.

I wanted to write something reminiscent of medieval drama, something archaic, ritualistic and ceremonial. Making myself ‘unknow’ what I’ve learnt was the equivalent of, say, a painter forgetting perspective and going back to painting entirely and only in two dimensions.

Of the many strange writing experiences I’ve had (and I’ve had a few) this deliberate eschewing of technique in order to make something archaic was the strangest I’ve ever had – and I would like to believe the most worthwhile.

Belfast by Moonlight runs in St George's Church, Belfast from October 18 – 27. Visit the Belfast Festival at Queen's website for more information.