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by Steve Humfress and Andy Rapps
Although the emotional heart of this epic show is the hunchbacked Quasimodo’s unrequited and hopeless love for Esmeralda, his brave efforts to save her, and his alienation from the world, there is another achingly tragic tale unfolding beneath the surface. That of the mad old crone known as Sister Godule who haunts the streets of Paris pouring hatred and bile on the heads of all gypsies, especially that of the beautiful Esmeralda.
Her obsessive, blind fury, fuelled by the gypsies’ theft of her baby daughter, leads her to destroy not only herself but, unwittingly, the only thing she has ever loved. Her accomplice, the upright and deeply devout, Archdeacon Frollo, is, in his own way, an equally doomed figure as he struggles with his religious beliefs against his baser nature.
A clear role in this show is taken by the chorus/ensemble who, as the various colourful inhabitants of 15th century Paris, enact their own tragedy as they look for answers to the causes of their poverty, pain and fear. Set amidst the rigid religious orthodoxy of the time the show unfolds against the magnificent edifice of Notre Dame Cathedral, a symbol of solid certainty in a very uncertain world
Paquette, a young, single mother, has a beautiful baby daughter. The child is the result of Paquette’s desperate descent into prostitution, but with the birth of her child she has vowed to leave her old life behind. However, a passing band of gypsies, much taken with the child, steal her and leave a deformed baby boy in her place. The local women are horrified by the child’s deformities and, believing this to be the work of the devil, and fearing for the sanctity of their own souls, are about to burn him. The local priest, Father Frollo, stops them and vows to bring up the child as his own. A distraught Paquette clings pathetically to one remaining tiny slipper as the only tangible memento of her lost child.
Twenty years later, the people of Paris are about to celebrate The Feast of Fools Day by electing the King of Fools. This is pretty much a gurning competition. However, on this occasion, a surprise entrant is the badly deformed Quasimodo, the much feared, reclusive bell ringer of Notre Dame Cathedral. In the intervening years, Father Frollo has climbed the ladder and is now Archdeacon of the Cathedral bringing his adopted child with him. Naturally, Quasimodo wins the competition hands down and, as part of the celebration, Esmeralda; a young gypsy dancer is persuaded to perform for Quasimodo. Frollo intervenes in this spectacle but he becomes suddenly consumed by an overpowering, and for him, frightening, lust for the beautiful gypsy girl. As he drags Quasimodo away, a mad old nun known as Sister Godule abuses Esmeralda but the crowd chase her off. Sister Godule is in fact Paquette now twenty years older and driven to an insane hatred of gypsies by the loss of her daughter. As night falls Esmeralda dreams of the glamorous hero she hopes to meet one day. Her reverie is interrupted when Frollo attempts to abduct her with the help of Quasimodo. Her cries summon help in the shape of the Paris guard led by Captain Pheobus de Chateaus who superficially embodies everything that Esmeralda has dreamed of. In the confusion, Frollo escapes but Quasimodo is taken prisoner. Esmeralda flees but has caught the eye of Phoebus who finds a small slipper that she has dropped.
The next day Quasimodo appears in court before a deaf judge. As neither the defendant nor judge can hear each other a series of comic misunderstandings ensue resulting in Quasimodo being sentenced to a whipping in the town square. The crowd seize the opportunity to abuse the much-feared bell-ringer but are admonished for their cruelty by Esmeralda and she gives Quasimodo a drink of water. Goaded on by Paquette, the crowd turn on Esmeralda. Phoebus drives the crowd away and arranges to meet Esmeralda later at the Inn where he lodges, under the pretext of returning her lost slipper. Unfortunately, this conversation is overheard by Frollo and consumed by jealousy he vows to kill her. Meanwhile, Quasimodo is overwhelmed by Esmeralda’s kindness to him but at the same time, realises that his physical deformities put her way beyond his reach.
Emeralda meets Phoebus in his lodgings and she explains that she keeps the slipper in the hope that her long lost mother might see it. Phoebus is an experienced seducer and takes full advantage of Esmeralda’s vulnerability. But Frollo has followed Esmerlda to the Inn and he bursts into the room, confronts Pheobus and stabs him. Esmeralda grabs Phoebus’ sword to ward off Frollo. The noise attracts a crowd and Frollo flees leaving Esmeralda standing over the dead Phoebus with sword in hand looking as if she has murdered the soldier. Sister Godule seizes the opportunity to show the crowd that she was right all along and Esmeralda is dragged off to prison.
On a sunny morning an enthusiastic crowd gather to watch as Esmeralda is to be hanged as a witch. Sister Godule is much in evidence as she waits to enjoy the fruits of her labours. She explains to the people gathered around that she hates gypsies because they stole her daughter, shows them the baby’s slipper which she still carries, and that she has vowed revenge upon all gypsies. Esmeralda arrives escorted by guards and the hangman. She is thrown onto the steps of the Cathedral to make her last confession to Frollo. Although she recognises him as the murderer she knows that nobody would believe her. He tells her he can still save her if she agrees to become his mistress but she angrily refuses. As she is about to be hanged, Quasimodo, who has been watching from the Cathedral, drags her from the scaffold and into the sanctuary of the Church. Sister Godule pleads with the guards to retrieve her but they tell her there is nothing they can do.
Quasimodo carries her into a small cell in the bell tower and tries to reassure a distraught Esmeralda. Having prepared herself for death she finds it hard to come to terms with her unexpected survival and the prospect of being virtually imprisoned in the Cathedral. He watches over her when she sleeps, as he only feels comfortable in her presence when she can’t see him and he dreams of a relationship he knows he can never have. Eventually, he falls asleep outside her room. Frollo has found a different route to her cell and accuses the girl of deliberately setting out to destroy his soul and he attempts to rape her. Awakened by the noise, Quasimodo drives Frollo away. Frollo, determined that the girl should either be his or die, seeks out Sister Godule and hatches a plot with her to persuade the poverty stricken inhabitant of Paris to attack the Cathedral and distract Quasimodo so that they can seize Esmeralda back.
Sister Godule descends into the Parisian underworld and persuades the poverty stricken inhabitants that their misfortunes are the consequence of allowing a witch to stay alive. She whips the crowd into a superstitious frenzy and they set off to storm the Cathedral.
Esmeralda contemplates her feelings about her rescuer. Whilst on the one hand, she is repulsed by his ugliness she also recognises that he is a true and faithful friend and in many ways epitomises the man she has always dreamed of. Her reverie is interrupted by the arrival of the mob below. Quasimodo tells her to stay hidden whilst he fights off the attackers. Frollo takes Sister Godule to Esmeralda’s hiding place. She suddenly spots the slipper hanging at Esmeralda’s throat and eventually realises that the object of her hatred is in fact her own beloved daughter. She turns a knife on Frollo and attempts to force an escape. Although she wounds him, he manages to disarm her and is going to kill Esmeralda but the mother throws herself in the way of the fatal blow and is mortally injured. Whilst Esmeralda cradles her dying mother, Frollo takes some of the attackers to her hiding place and they drag her into the street to be hanged. Quasimodo has had to kill Frollo to attempt a rescue but arrives in time to see her dead body hanging. Heartbroken, he holds the dead girl in his arms. The mob, seeing his raw grief, are quelled into shamed silence.
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