A BBC Radio Drama North production, developed in association with Graeae Theatre Company. Review by Colin Hambrook
A recent Radio 4 production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame was commissioned with the idea of exploring a new approach to creating radio drama. The classic tale is not one that would come to mind as holding a positive disability message, but that is less to do with the original 1831 French novel written by Victor Hugo than the film adaptations that have followed in its wake. From the depictions by Charles Laughton and Anthony Quinn to the 1996 asinine and sentimental Disney cartoon, Quasimodo has been exploited as a figure of fear and of ridicule.
As the academic Colin Barnes points out, Quasimodo represents:
"a depiction of the disabled person as sex-starved or sexually degenerate. Rejected, isolated and ridiculed by French society, the hunchback Quasimodo develops an unhealthy lust for the virginal Esmeralda. Following her rejection he terrorises the local community until finally he is killed."
The stereotype not only conveys a message of the disabled person as an object of pity, but also reinforces the connection between 'mental illness' and sexual perversion, which the tabloid press love to exploit only too often.
In producing this latest adaptation there was a determination to put the story back in the hands of disabled artists and see what other facets of the character could be drawn out. Through the writing collaboration between Graeae’s Alex Bulmer and Jack Thorne we have an adaptation that not only places Quasimodo’s deafness as central to the construction of the play, but presents him as a symbol of innocence and of integrity, rather than of corruption.
Quasimodo is part-narrator of the story as well as a key player. He relates what he sees from his objective position on the cathedral roof, trying to make sense of the racist vilification of the Gypsies who have come to the city for the Festival of Fools. His relationship to his ‘Father’ - Archdeacon Frollo, is the main plot device. The story weighs the ideal, unconditional love of the bell-ringer against the overwhelming jealous, destructive love of the archdeacon, who holds the keys to the cathedral and power over all who come within its embrace.
There is a poetry in the writing which moves with a pace, unique to Deaf syntax, which typically places the object of the sentence before the action. David Bower, deaf performer and artistic director of the Signdance Collective, plays Quasimodo with an emotional depth and honesty that gives a new insight into this archetypal figure. There is an empathy in his performance that explores the way disabled people are infantilised. Locked away from the outside world, Quasimodo is slowly becoming aware of how he is perceived:
“They look at me fear in their eyes, like my face might blind them; like I am something contagious.”
In the process of giving us a more complete picture, the story explores Quasimodo’s relationship to the bells he is given charge of, as an outward expression of his pride in himself as a disabled, Deaf man.
The BBC has taken care to create something unique. Unusually, the production came together through a workshop process, allowing the directors time to get a feel for how the characters evolve through the words in the script. To accompany the unfolding action is a sparse yet layered soundtrack that adds colour and depth to heighten the drama.
From the critical appraise the play has received, it is clear that the production was seen by the media as a success. Paul Donovan, writing in The Sunday Times, was clearly swayed, but remarked that he ‘did wonder if the production would be a piece of disability rights propaganda masquerading as drama'. The truth is that Disability Arts should not be defined as being essentially about access and equality. Yes the BBC did want to change the face of the public perception of who can have a voice on the radio. But as accomplished artistic expression, Disability Arts offers something unique, because it puts the disability experience at the fore.
I only hope we can expect to receive more equally entertaining and enlightening work on the BBC.
Colin Barnes' quote is from Disabling Imagery and the Media: An Exploration of the Principles for Media Representations of Disabled People, published by The British Council of Disabled People. Ryburn Publishing