Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame gets Belt Up Theatre’s trademark reconstruction as we are drawn into the Court of Miracles.
In the garret of a fire-damaged building we join the “truands” – vagabonds, cut-purses, thieves and murderers who stalk the dark, violent streets of medieval Paris. Here we will be asked to judge on who is really ugly as a battle is waged for the heart of the striking gypsy girl, Esmerelda.
It’s a tale of love, lust, betrayal, jealousy and obsession. At the centre, like a spider in a web is Frollo, Archdeacon of Notre Dame Cathedral and adoptive father of Quasimodo, the deaf and deformed bell-ringer. One of the themes of the novel is determinism and in this version Frollo pushes Quasimodo toward his fate while using him as a tool to wreak his own vengeance.
Pulled down to earth, away from his spiritual home, Quasimodo struggles to keep control of the story and to have it play out as it does in his dreams. Between them are Esmerelda and Phoebus, the dashing captain of the guard who may not be the knight in shining armour that she hopes for.
As they fight over alternative endings, Quasimodo is held up as a mirror to all the ugliness in the world but with no sanctuary at hand it’s a battle that could be all their undoing.
This is a truly atmospheric piece of theatre. The dimly lit room feels infused with the sense of the 1830 French Revolution which was taking place as Hugo wrote. The audience sits both on chairs and on the floor around a central table as the action unfolds just feet away. Some of the whispered lines actually sound as if they are coming from the audience, drawing us in and making us feel complicit.
The performances almost seem mixed in styles, particularly between the inquisitorial Frollo, the suave Captain (looking very like Alan Marshal from the 1939 film) and the almost childlike, tortured Quasimodo. This might jar, but the setting, perfect accompanying music and immersive feel pull together to win out. The narrative might be less clear if you do not know the story and the closing part labours the point a little but it’s a highly individual production that works hard to show that both beauty and ugliness might be more than skin deep.
Footnote: Pip Utton’s Hunchback of Note Dame is also playing at the Pleasance, 4-29 (not 17) August, 3.15pm.
4-30 (alternate days) August, 11pm
£8.50 (£7.50) 4, 6, 16, 24.
£10.50 (£9.50) 8, 10, 14, 20, 22, 28, 30.
£9.50 (8.50) 12, 18, 26.