Staying as true as possible to Victor Hugo’s novel, Notre Dame de Paris aka The Hunchback of Notre Dame brings fifteenth-century Paris to life. We meet the disfigured bellringer Quasimodo, the beautiful dancer Esmeralda, the jealous priest Claude Frollo and the hapless poet Pierre Gringoir – all in a stunning, flame-lit, two-and-a-half-hour outdoor performance. The main characters’ destinies are intertwined a tragic story of passion, betrayal, and life on the outside of society.
Staged in the courtyard of St Patrick’s Church, the impressive set reaches up in front of the audience – echoing Notre Dame’s twin towers and rose window, and complete with a full organ. This is just the first hint of how impressive this show is, and how much effort has been put into the scale and atmosphere. Lit only by fire, accompanied by the beautiful strains of violin and the organ, there is an almost timeless air to the piece as the modern world fades into memory.
This action is equally spectacular, building on and utilising the actors’ wide range of skills in a way that perfectly complements the story, and indeed adds to the atmosphere. Featuring live animals, and stunning displays of both acrobatics and equestrianism, it is both a visual treat and very much suited to the time period in which the story is set. Particularly clever is the costume design of the wealthy Parisienne heiresses – echoing the wide and layered dresses of the time, but simply pared back to more practical structures that hint at the gilded cages they inhabited. And the scene featuring the gargoyles of the Cathedral is a special delight; it wows the audience with circus skills until they are unsure where to look, the ring filled with with action.
Although much of the dialogue has been translated into English, a familiarity with the book or a good knowledge of French is necessary to follow the action in the first act. While the initial scene is well-designed to introduce the main characters – and as the play progresses, it becomes easier to follow – the programme on sale does help immensely. The language difficulty is a particular shame, as it limits the accessibility of this spectacular show for people who are unfamiliar with this work. It’s also worth knowing that, in keeping with the original book, there is heavy use of the word ‘gypsy’ as a racial slur (and the associated myth of those peoples originating in Egypt) – together with harmful stereotypes of travellers stealing and eating the children of settled people.
Still, Notre Dame de Paris is a unique treat. It’s well worth familiarising yourself with the story (or your rusty school French) to fully appreciate the performance, and the passion and hard work that has been put in to all the show by all the cast and crew.