Hunchback hits centre stage

By Madhushala Senaratne, Pix by J. Weerasekera

The scene: Paris. 15th century. Notre Dame. Start of the annual Festival of Fools. Crowds of people in costumes, vying for the title of King of Fools – the person dressed in the ugliest manner. The winner: Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

People cheer him on. They think his face is a 'great mask. However, they soon realize he is not in any costume and this is what he really looks like. They turn against him, pelting him with all sorts of food. He's ugly, deformed. They don't want him. He's an outcast. This is what Frollo warned him of. He is rescued by a gypsy girl, Esmeralda. The two of them, together with the gallant soldier, Phoebus, strive to defy the ruthless force of Frollo…

This classic tale of Victor Hugo's deformed bell-ringer of Notre Dame comes alive this month in the form of a musical, performed by the students of Ladies' College. The production is directed by Mohamed Adamaly (Adam).

Speaking to the Mirror Magazine, the principal of Ladies College, Ms. Nirmali Wickremesinghe said that such productions are vital for the development of a student. "I always believe that extra curricular activities, especially things like music and dance, are what complete you. It also helps students gain more self-confidence and they learn to work as a team," she says.

And, the reason for picking Hunchback is quite simple really, she adds. With themes of discrimination (in this case based on appearance – deformity), love and ability to stand up for what's right running throughout, there is much to learn from Hunchback of Notre Dame.

"There is a wonderful message – empathy and learning to treat everyone equally. This goes so well with the values and ethos of our school. This is what we always tell our students", she says, adding that "When I took over as principal five years ago, this (musical) was one of the many things I had planned."
"So this message as well as the music really got to us. And the cast pretty much sorted itself out", says Anushka Senanayake, President of the English Literary Association of the school.

Although, this is the first major musical for many of the students, the girls had the opportunity to try their hand at musicals last year with the inter-house drama competitions, says Anushka. Besides, it gives an opportunity for not just actresses, but singers and musicians as well. The cast, apart from the main characters, includes a "huge chorus" and a "large number of dancers" from primary to A/L students, exceeds 100.

The script is based on the Disney version of Hunchback. "The Disney version is mainly suited for film and not for stage. So we had to re-adjust the script quite a lot," explains Adam. On the preparations so far, he says, "We've been treating this as a training ground." Several workshops were conducted for the cast. "Also, for example if we picked a particular dance movement, we would analyse why we picked that movement and not anything else," he says.

Dance plays a significant role in the production, Adam says, explaining that, "Most of what is done and said is depicted through dance, even things like fire is brought out through dance." The dances used are mainly modern jazz and jazz ballet forms. The dances are choreographed by Surekha Buell. There would also be live music playing. The music is directed by Beatrice Devasagayum, while Sureka Amarasinghe would lead the musicians.

He adds, unlike in the film version, the acting focuses a lot on character development. "We have tried to explore the different dimensions of each character. Even minor characters have their weaknesses. So there are no straightforward characters or 100% heroes or villains, they are all human," he explains.

Quasimodo, the hunchback is played by Tehani Welgama. She regards her character as "Good-hearted", but is quick to add, "He has a monstrous face and is deformed," which is what leads him to be treated as an outcast.

Quasimodo is confined to live in a cathedral by Frollo, the ruthless and powerful judge, played by Rhadeena De Alwis, who takes him in rather reluctantly after his mother is killed. He serves as the bell-ringer of Notre Dame. Frollo insists that Quasimodo never leaves the bell tower as it is such a cruel world out there, and his appearance would only lead to more taunts and cruelty.

"But Quasimodo dreams of seeing the world out there. He was sick of watching, he wanted to go out and see," says Tehani. Helped by his three gargoyle friends, played by Ruwendi Wakwella, Dinoo Wickramage and Irushi Tennekoon, Quasimodo attends the festival of fools. On the gargoyles, Adam says, "They represent Quasimodo's subconscious mind. They play one character but portray three different ways or dimensions of his thinking – the mysterious, gallant and devilish dimensions."

At the festival of fools, Quasimodo meets Esmeralda, a gypsy girl. Dhanushi Wijeyakulusuriya who plays Esmeralda says, "Esmeralda is a very fiery character. She is very defiant. Her people are being prosecuted. They are being marginalized and discriminated against. So she fights against it and in doing so, she risks her own life." She goes on to say that the role was a bit challenging. "I am on the shy, laid-back side. But this role has helped me become more outspoken." A singer, Danushi finds the dances somewhat challenging, but has managed to overcome it.

Esmeralda loves Phoebus, the gallant soldier. Taking about Phoebus, Tashiya De Silva says, like other characters, he stands up for what he believes is right. "He is this gallant captain. He knows what Frollo is doing is wrong, so he helps the others," she says, adding that it was interesting to play a military character.

Together, Phoebus, Esmeralda and Quasimodo strive to defy the ruthless forces of Frollo and put an end to their suffering. Will they succeed? There's death, destruction and empathy. Can the outcast survive?

Hunchback of Notre Dame will go on boards on October 31 and November 1, at the school hall, starting at 7pm. Tickets are now available at the school office.

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