A production of ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’: Quasimodo in callipers

An inclusive school’s production made ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ come alive with an energy that ignored the challenges and made light of differences

The character of Quasimodo is the quintessence “of ugly on the outside and beautiful on the inside. That strikes a chord with everyone.” Alan Irwin Menken, the American musical theatre and film score composer, who has collaborated with his colleague, Stephen Lawrence Schwartz, to create innumerable Disney films and stage productions, has been quoted as saying. So when Akshar, a Kolkata-based inclusive school, was casting about for a play to produce as part of its 20th anniversary celebrations, the choice fell naturally on The Hunchback of Notre Dame, an off-Broadway production that has darker shades than the Disney animated film version, both adaptations conceived by the Menken-Schwartz team.

After the rousing production at Kala Mandir on the evening of July 12, when an ensemble of 57 children, about 12 of them with special needs, acted, switched roles, sang and danced with almost clockwork precision, never missing a cue or going off-key, Noni Khullar, the principal of the school, said the play, based on Victor Hugo’s 19th century classic, was chosen with a “lot of deliberation” because feeling and understanding the needs of the children, who may otherwise have been treated as outcasts, like the bell-ringer Quasimodo, were part of the life of all the students. However, she stressed that she would “never compromise on mainstream. Without mainstream, no inclusion.”

A Scene from the production.

A Scene from the production.  
| Photo Credit:
Akshar School

A story for our times

The story is set in medieval times, the Dark Ages when intolerance, orthodoxy and superstition and hypocritical religious leaders, like the political strongmen of today, dictated the lives of ordinary people, and those beyond the pale — those whom Christ would have embraced — were treated like pariahs. So, unintended though it may have been, the play in two acts resonates with our troubled times. It is enacted in the shadow of the Gothic cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. The bells and the Gothic arches of the sets designed by Tom Lai set the tone of the play. The archdeacon has brought up his nephew, Quasimodo, who is deformed and grotesque from birth, to be his servant. He doubles as the cathedral’s bell-ringer.

Quasimodo, who shuns human company because the archdeacon has dinned into his head that his appearance will frighten people, gradually responds to the kindness and warmth of the beautiful gypsy, Esmerelda, whose alien tribe is treated with suspicion and hatred because they are allegedly versed in sorcery. Ironically, the archdeacon himself is smitten by Esmerelda’s beauty, but is at the same time convinced of her deviltry. When she doesn’t yield to his overtures, he orders her to be burnt at the stake. Quasimodo makes a heroic bid to rescue Esmerelda. He finally sees the archdeacon for the monster he has become and hurls him to his death from the tower. Esmerelda, however, soon breathes her last, but in her death she liberates Quasimodo, who is at last accepted by the townspeople.

The bare bones of the plot hardly give one any idea of the gallery of characters that people this invigorating play, nor of the dialogue set to music, of the chorals, some in Latin, as in the Gregorian chants, and of the gypsy songs, sprinkled with lyrics in Romani chib.

In the production, the gargoyles and statues of the great cathedral came to life in the lonely Quasimodo’s imagination.

Set free: A scene from the production.

Set free: A scene from the production.  
| Photo Credit:
Akshar School

The dances, punctuated with a pyrotechnic display of cartwheels, were energetic, and the music, although too loud at times, was dramatic, often with hints of turbulence. Ritam Mukhopadhyay, all of 14, who played one of the five Quasimodos, proved that even legs encased in callipers could not dampen his exuberance, as he effortlessly ascended the steep stairs of the set.

Rishi Sood as the archdeacon was convincingly bumptious and self-righteous. Debaroti Bit as Esmerelda may have been a little too small, but had a sweet voice to compensate.

Everyone’s special

Part of the tremendous success of the production owed it to the attitude and spirit of Dana Roy, the young director, who treats all cast members alike. Her parents, Katy and Sumit Lai Roy, are pioneers of English language theatre in Kolkata, and Dana herself has taught drama at Akshar for two years and worked with theatre in various schools for 15 years. The first time she worked with an integrated cast was when she, along with her mother, directed Alice in Wonderland for the same school. She believes that “they will rise to any challenge”.

She says that some of the children are differently-abled both mentally and physically, the disabilities “ranging from intellectual disability to Prader-Willi syndrome, to dyslexia, to spina bifida, to autism spectrum disorder, to name a few. However, you can’t treat a child like a syndrome.”

As any teacher will, she asserts that every single child needs special attention, and adds: “Some need help and encouragement in one aspect and some in others. So the special needs get addressed within this attitude towards all students — and this is what Akshar does so well.” Which is why the number of children in any classroom is never upwards of 25; the smaller the class the better the contact.

Neena Singh, executive director of Akshar, said in an interview that special and mainstream pairing begins in the junior classes, and on sports day, there is one relay in which everybody in class participates.

Don’t learn

It was to focus on her idea that anybody could be born with a challenge that Dana Roy, in a major break from the original script, introduced five Quasimodos — “to reflect the many possible disabilities.” One of them used American sign language because Quasimodo had become partially deaf, a price he paid for ringing the church bell from childhood.

One half of Quasimodo’s face resembled raw flesh, while the other half looked wasted. Tinnat Lai was responsible for this horrifying look.

The audition and casting process was extensive and exhaustive, and training started in March, with the number of hours put in daily stretching to six, over six days a week. Whether mainstream or special needs, the majority of students took it in their stride. All of them struggled to learn Latin. Many of the 57 cast members were learning to sing in harmonies and deal with a complex two-hour script for the first time. “How each child approached it was different, and our job was to support that process and give them the tools to grow no matter what their hurdles or abilities,” says Dana.

Subhagata Singha and Shireen Ghosh, who were music directors as well as vocal trainers, designed a “sonic palette that suits our specific interpretation — for instance, we tried to make our Romani gypsies sound and feel much less two-dimensional than the Disney production” by introducing musical instruments used by nomadic people. They spent a week going from classroom to classroom conducting vocal range tests to classify voices into their voice types. The children memorised the songs and dialogues through constant repetition and practice. Or as Rishi Sood put it: “The whole point is not to learn.”

At the end, the production was living proof of Vincent van Gogh’s words. The great “aberrant” artist had once said: “Normality is a paved road: It’s comfortable to walk, but no flowers grow.” He could not have been truer.

The writer focuses on Kolkata’s vanishing heritage and culture.

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