Review: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Corpus Lateshow, 9.30pm, until Sat 10th March


There is no doubt that the Cambridge theatre scene holds some highly talented actors, of which we see weekly evidence across the pages of our theatre review. But every now and then someone comes along who reaches another level and creates magic before your eyes. Last night's Corpus Lateshow was one of those moments.

James Swanton's performance as Quasimodo was, simply put, amazing. To hold the stage solo for nearly an hour and half is a hugely impressive feat by itself, and the way in which he accomplished it only made it even more so. Essentially, Pip Utton's script is no more than a basic summary of Victor Hugo's novel, from Quasimodo's point of view. Yet under Swanton's treatment it became poetry and drama all in one, as with each sharp intake of breath, and every clasping and gesturing of his long fingers, he became pitiful, triumphant, enraged, fearful, chilling, darkly humorous and tender, all with equal power and emotion.

The physical representation of the role was remarkable. With one eye permanently closed, and his mouth distorted, Swanton created a partly-unnerving, partly-pitiable figure, aided by some very effective make-up. Again, the constancy with which this was maintained was admirable, as this characterisation did not slip once. There was incredible emotion and meaning in his looks, even with this single eye, which scanned the audience and seemed to look at and into each person there. Swanton seemed to break half the conventional rules of theatre, as he turned his back on the audience, hid in the darkness between spotlights, and even backed against the column dividing the two halves of the audience. Yet nothing could break our focus from him. After about ten minutes I forgot I was watching an actor, as he became utterly entrenched in the character.

Vocally, this man is astonishing. The range of tones and pitches which he projected into the Playroom conveyed the peaks and dips of the monologue, carrying the emotional evolutions of the performance. At times Swanton's voice was mellifluous and soulful; at others, powerfully furious; at others, so painfully heartbreaking that I found myself gripping the edge of my seat. The description of his experience on the pillory was especially moving; his body flinching and voice cracking as he relived each blow of the whip.

Praise must also going to the lighting designer, Victoria Green. The subtle shifts in lighting throughout the performance created a suitably eerie atmosphere and followed the details of the plot without being distracting or intrusive. The Playroom was the perfect venue and the lighting complemented it perfectly, as did the set, virtually bare aside from the mysterious yet somehow touching presence of a corpse beneath a white shroud. Add to this the effective use of the sound of bells and the heavy smell of incense, and the atmosphere became intense, almost claustrophobic, yet completely captivating.

The one criticism I have is directed only towards Cambridge's theatregoers. The Playroom was shamefully sparsely populated for such a show. I hope word spreads and the team get the audiences they so fully deserve, as this is something not to be missed. If we didn't have a limit of five stars then this would get six, for its bravery, atmosphere and wonderful acting which went beyond anything I have seen in my three years at Cambridge. An extraordinary performance and one I won't forget in a hurry. Bravo!

Laura Peatman

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