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Sunday, 22 April, 2001, 17:41 GMT 18:41 UK
A hunchback for all seasons
Ophaboom's production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Ophaboom's masked Quasimodo and Esmerelda
Victor Hugo published Notre Dame de Paris in 1831 but his tragic tale of a hunchback bell-ringer is enjoying something of a modern boom.

This week in London three versions of the book will be on stage - the musical Notre Dame de Paris, Strathcona Theatre's Notre Dame and Ophraboom's The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Disney too has just produced a follow-up to its 1996 animated The Hunchback of Notre Dame, with the voices of Demi Moore and Tom Hulce.

Esmerelda
Highly glamorised Esmereldas abound
And even the forthcoming movie When Brendan Met Trudy - penned by The Commitments author Roddy Doyle - features a clip from the 1939 movie The Hunchback of Notre Dame with Charles Laughton as the disabled bell-ringer.

There's clearly something in this gothic tale of the "hideous" Quasimodo and his unrequited love for the beautiful gypsy Esmerelda that can still capture the public's imagination.

"I think its just such a great story, an epic tale with great humanity," says Ann Cleary, artistic director of the Strathcona Theatre Company.

Cruel

Strathcona is an acclaimed learning disabled company and sought to make their just-opened production of Notre-Dame de Paris relevant to their actors.

Maureen O'Hara and Charles Laughton
Charles Laughton played a memorable Quasimodo
Quasimodo is of course, literature's most famous disabled character.

When he lopes onto the scene in Victor Hugo's novel, Hugo is anything but politically correct.

The bellringer is described as a "grimace" and Hugo goes on to say "he looked like a giant broken and badly repaired."

The people who meet Quasimodo shy away from him and pregnant women are told not to even look at him for fear of damaging their unborn children.

The challenge for Strathcona and Cleary was to portray Quasimodo in a truthful, but sensitive way.

"It's cruel stuff," says Cleary,¿ but every one of the actors have been subject to such cruel and unsympathetic comments."

Notre Dame
Where the story is set: Notre Dame in Paris
In the Strathcona production Quasimodo is given an alter-ego who expresses his inner-most thought and is the manifestation of the bell-ringer's interior world.

Adaptations of Notre Dame de Paris - like the musical version starring Dannii Minogue - tend to engineer a happier ending for the story, when the book is deeply tragic.

But Strathcona have chosen to give the story its full sad ending.

Quasimodo's "master" is a cruel archdeacon - Claude Frollo - who falls in lust with Esmerelda.

Tragic

At Frollo's command Quasimodo kidnaps her and she is rescued by the soldier Phoebus and she falls in love with his bravery when he is in reality a buffoon.

Frollo stabs Phoebus and frames Esmerelda who is sentenced to death for the murder.

In the meantime Quasimodo has become her effective slave due to a single act of kindness - she gives him a glass of water when all her peers are ridiculing him - and he takes her to sanctuary in the cathedral.

Dannii Minogue
Dannii Minogue as Esmerelda
Esmerelda is eventually hung and Quasimodo disappears to join her in the grave.

Ophaboom Theatre company - whose production of Notre Dame also opens this week in London before touring the country - has also chosen to give the story its tragic ending.

For Ophaboom - who perform in masks - the crux of the story is the outsider nature of Esmerelda the gypsy and Quasimodo the hunchback.

Love triangle

"They're both underclass characters," says Goeff Beale, who plays Quasimodo.

"And we've added contemporary resonance¿s of refugees and lower class life to add to the huge pathos of that."

Quasimodo
Strathcona's Quasimodo has an alter-ego
The ensemble uses singing gargoyles, puppetry, bathroom implements and satirical references to inject a comedy that certainly is not to be found in Hugo's version.

Esmerelda too has had an update.

"In the novel she's a vapid heroine," says Beale.

"But we've made her stronger and almost cruel, towards Quasimodo at times, rather then the sweet woman she is often portrayed as."

The great strength of Hugo's story is that it can be adapted for all times and interpreted every which way and still repay reading.

The story of an unrequited love triangle (or square in this case) continues to thrill audiences.

Each character is tragically in love with another who does not want them, for whatever reason.

"In the end its about all things going wrong for everybody," says Beale.

"Its all human folly uncovered."

Strathcona's Notre-Dame de Paris is at the Lyric Studio Hammersmith, London till 5 May.

Ophaboom's The Hunchback of Notre Dame is at The Camden's Theatre Company next week and will then tour the country.

Notre Dame de Paris with Dannii Minogue continues at the Dominion Theatre London.

See also:

27 Mar 01 | Film
Roddy Doyle escapes reality
14 Feb 01 | Entertainment
Dannii: Belle of Notre Dame
26 Jan 00 | Entertainment
Musical limbers up in Cannes
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