I’m still in Belfast, staying at the Merchant Hotel, which predictably used to be a bank, yet is now asserting itself as an enclave of Parisian luxury in the heart of Antrim: the Crillon with soda-bread canapes and Guinness cocktails. Even more predictably, I loathe it. No fault of the hotel, you understand, it’s just that as the years go by the theatre of temporary rented accommodation seems more and more threadbare to me: no turn-down service can prettify the thousands of cold sex acts performed between these sheets; no marble tiling can convince me that it’s a proscenium arch, within which my taking a shit becomes a command performance.
And then there are the two double beds, as high and snowy as alpine peaks. Who checks into a hotel and asks for a room with two double beds? Homely swingers, who intersperse bouts of orifice-swapping with cups of tea and crossword clues? Surely not. Still, I don’t have to hang out in the Merchant much — I have a real play to go to —or rather, four temporary theatres. My friend Carlo Gebler’s play Henry & Harriet is being put on in the Cathedral Quarter of the city, as part of the annual Arts Festival, and performed in an unusual way. The audience assemble outside the Northern Whig public house and are then led from shop to shop — four in all — by the actor playing Henry Surphlis, the protagonist.
I’m initially a little wary of this unusual stratagem. At the best of times, as a professional suspender, I find it hard to suspend disbelief. It’s never Goneril for me — always a girl who went to Rada. I heard Fiona Shaw say on the radio the other night that theatre audiences have an essential willingness to make believe anything. I can understand this, because with the bulk of theatre you have to make believe that it’s any good whatsoever.
In fact, the theatrical promenade works wonderfully. I and my fellow playgoers are issued with luggage labels and ushered into a travel agent’s on Donegall Street, where we sit along the counter, scrutinising adverts for Jamaica. Then the actors enter and a rapid-fire dialogue begins about the steamer tickets that Henry has dishonestly acquired tickets that will secure him and his true love, Harriet, a berth on the Titanic, which is due to sail from Southampton for New York, on 10 April.
Yes, it’s 1912, and Henry is dressed in a suitably fustian, mismatched suit — material to the plot. The problem of life — or one of them, at any rate — is always mistaking the map for the territory; by playing out this drama in the same place as it might actually have taken place, but transposing it into a different era, Carlo and the Kabosh Theatre Company have winched my disbelief out of sight.
The scene finishes, and Henry leads us out on to Donegall Street and around the corner to Langford’s shoe shop on North Street, all the while offering us asides on Belfast lore: Donegall Street used to be known as Pauper Street, because at one end there was the bank (now the Merchant) and at the other the poor house. Over there is where the inventor of milk of magnesia lived (or was it worked? I picture him crushing up chalk).
At the end of the scene in the shoe shop, the woman sitting next to me points out an inconsistency in the text, a text she’s been reading as the actors speak their lines. I want to hit her. It’s one thing to extemporise incredulity — it’s quite another to go equipped for it. Still, nothing can seriously dampen my mood as we follow Henry to his next frenzied instalment, at Suitor Menswear on Rosemary Street. It helps that the shop is one of those male outfitters permanently mired in the 1950s, where Viyella shirts clash with tweed jackets. There’s plenty for the eye to rove over as the action hots up, and no need for the embarrassment of audience participation (which is really only the condition of life writ small), because, after all, we’re sitting in a shop.
It’s the same at Cash Converters on the High Street, where the drama reaches its crescendo. Here the “stage” is piled up with boxes of knock-down DVD players, while the flats comprise glass cabinets full of Royal Doulton china figurines, and sad stacks of unutterably bad oil paintings. Best of all, when the denouement has come, there’s no opportunity for applause: seamlessly, we file out of 1912 and back into 2007. Doctor Who couldn’t have done better. In a world in which we’re pinioned at the heart of a murderous mechanism of our own devising, pedalling furiously to power-up with the sweat of our brows a delusional virtuality, Henry & Harriet is the real thing.
Carlo Gebler’s play Henry & Harriet is published by the Lagan Press, ££7.99