Edinburgh Fringe 2010
One of seven shows on the Fringe from York’s Belt Up company, this intimate reworking of the Victor Hugo story about the love of a deformed bellringer for a gypsy girl in 15th century Paris succeeds in its claustrophobic staging. But in doing so it sacrifices a sense of Quasimodo’s private rooftop world, and the character’s tug of war over the narrative in the latter stages is more interesting than their battle for the rather soulless Esmeralda.
Half way through Belt Up’s version of the Victor Hugo story a globule of sweat rolls slowly down the hunchback’s twisted shoulder and splashes onto Esmeralda’s small pale chest. By the end of the hour the stage smoke and tinkling piano music that greeted us to a darkly sensual Paris have diffused away, leaving pungent body odour and two crumpled bodies. Claustrophobically staged in a small dark room, with the audience seated in a circle around which Quasimodo heaves himself painfully, Jethro Compton’s production captures the sheer physical effort needed for him to move, to live, to feel. At one point he hangs from a ladder to our left and we smell the sweat in our nose, see the spit as he sucks on his fist, and hear the desperate panting in our ear.
Of course Quasimodo is not the real grotesque in this story. His exploiter, Frollo the scheming Minister of Justice, is a small, mean-chinned, sly-eyed runt for whom everything is reputation and everything is flesh, from his greedy ‘love’ for Esmeralda to his punishment of Quasimodo. How can I punish you when you have nothing except your revolting flesh? he asks. And so he has chunks of it whipped from Quasimodo in the town square. Likewise Phoebus, the handsome soldier and romantic rival. Played with high cheekbones and a horrible sensuality, he pronounces the word ‘lashes’ with the same lingering enjoyment as the word ‘pleasure’, soft lips drawing slowly back across gleaming teeth. Together they trap Quasimodo into bringing his small world down around him, sometimes donning white masks to whisper the hunchback’s name from the sidelines as though reminding him of his inescapable destiny.
The weak link here is Esmeralda, the beautiful gypsy girl who has won all three male hearts with her kindness and her intoxicating dancing (we see lots of kindness but no dancing – to all intents in purposes she woos Phoebus with a nice bowl of soup). A more vivid performance would up the show’s power considerably, but this rather soulless girl is a cipher, her body the battle ground.
Much more interesting is the clever tug of war Belt Up have the men play over the story itself. In the second half, Frollo and Quasimodo begin seizing segments of narration from each other in order to tell the version of the story they wish to live. Again and again Quasimodo attempts to gain control of the narrative, becoming more childlike as he voices his happy ending in the third person (Quasimodo did not….) and invariably failing with a wounded cry of “No! I did not want this!”
What Belt Up achieve in claustrophobia they forfeit in our sense of those two magical spaces of sanctuary, self-expression and occasional soaring freedom – the rooftops and bell tower of the cathedral where Quasimodo lives and the Court of Miracles, home of the gypsies – in Victor Hugo’s tale. If we were seeing this a second time, we would definitely choose a floor cushion. Seated on a chair, level to the dark wooden table that is sometimes used as a raised section of stage, we had little sense of the levels they were clearly attempting. From where we sat, this was a Quasimodo crawling between earth and heaven, whose final description of love as a tree that sucks your nutrients reminded us of the man in the news recently – the one who thought he had a tumour but found it was a pea sapling growing in his lung. For this Quasimodo, love has been both an unnatural infestation and a strange, unsolicited blessing.