It was just like the old days – or at least like it was three years ago when the pandemic had closed venues down entirely. Although the vast majority of online theatre has consisted of pre-recorded material, every now and again there has been the option to settle down at home to watch an online performance in real time. One of the venues which has kept this flame alive is The Space in London’s Docklands and for their latest foray into this world they have retained the services of Threedumb Theatre.
Ever since Covid’s early days this pioneering company has developed and sustained the idea of the one shot livestream; this is unedited and raw but captures much of the spontaneity and edge which comes with live performance. Their latest is probably their most ambitious offering in this genre and brings together successful elements from earlier pieces such as The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, One Man Poe and, in particular The Black Cat.
As with the last of these, Notre Dame, offers the viewer a digital promenade performance through The Space; this is one in which different areas within a location are used and the audience remains static while the camera does the promenading. Given that the play is based on Victor Hugo’s novel about the grand gothic Parisian cathedral and that The Space is a deconsecrated church there is a happy marriage of subject matter and location which works extremely well. The piece began (last night anyway) on a shot of rain lashed cobbles before taking us inside to the main hall but also into various nooks, crannies and stairwells around the whole building which reeks of atmosphere. Director/cameraman Stephen Smith becomes essentially an extra character ensuring that not a moment of action or dialogue is lost.
Stuart Crowther’s script does a fine job of filleting much of the baggy diversions which characterise Hugo’s novel down into 70 minutes and has us concentrate on the main trio of the bell ringer Quasimodo (Gary Duncan), the traveller Esmerelda (Maria Masonou) and villain of the piece the cleric Claude Frollo (Duncan Riches). There’s a complex web of relationships at work here which Crowther explores in a series of, mostly, duologues amid a whole swathe of themes such as sexual repression, bigotry and what it means to be an outsider.
Of course, Quasimodo himself is one of literature’s great outsiders as the disabled orphan despised by his fellow human beings but loyal to a fault. Here, though, the adaptor/director/actor have significantly played down the often horrific depiction of the role we have become used to through various film adaptations (notably that of Charles Laughton). Here, it is as though the disability/ugliness is one that has been foisted upon the character by society at large and by his corrupt and sadistic father figure in particular. Duncan’s characterisation is all the more complex for it and leaves us in no doubt that Quasimodo is scarred mentally rather than physically. This gives the play a contemporary edge which is enhanced by some of the more up to the moment dialogue.
I wasn’t altogether sure about the inclusion of a gargoyle figure, Stryga (Lizzie Burder) as Chorus to the narrative. While this was useful as a means of filling in some of the past events in order to tighten the storyline it was perhaps just a bit too reminiscent of the Disney version mashed up with elements of Dr Who’s Weeping Angels. However, it was an interesting theatrical conceit and was carried off with aplomb even if there was a bit of a mismatch between the volume of this and the other characters.
The whole piece is redolent with Gothic sensibility and although nowhere near to being an out and out horror story, the atmosphere the team manages to create in and around the location, enhances the narrative to significant effect. True there were occasional reminders that this was the 2020s and not the 1480s in the form of crash bars on the doors, the odd evidence of electrical cabling and cars visibly passing by in the street outside but these were fleeting in comparison with the tense atmosphere generally created by Eddie Stephens’ and Joseph Furey’s excellent light and sound scapes. Another definite plus point is the fact that the camera is able to get in extremely close providing, among others, a chilling and contemporarily significant confrontation scene between Riches and Masonou as predator and unwilling victim.
It all builds to a great climax with a particularly striking fire sequence evoking memories of the recent fate of the real cathedral. Indeed Notre Dame is an impressively daring feat of technical knowhow throughout, clearly driven by Smith’s overarching vision. Over the last few years and under his stewardship, Threedumb Theatre has racked up an impressive number of online and live theatrical hits which have eschewed easy solutions in favour of artistic integrity. This is a great start to their 2023 and if you want a brief reminder of how we theatre goers coped during the lockdown then here is a salutary reminder.