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Thoughts After the Great Fire at Notre Dame Cathedral

After the initial shock at the tragedy of the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral, my first consideration after seeing that no one was hurt and that the 800 year old cathedral survived was, What does this mean for my show?

I have been visiting Notre Dame and working on a theatrical circus version of Notre Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo,  deciding to create and tour it this year with rehearsals beginning the day after Easter, everything was planned and dates set, with a tour beginning in Brittany and continuing via Devon and Wales to the Edinburgh fringe festival in August.

This was to be a show featuring horses and aerial skills ,theatre,dance and acoustic music and featuring a 600 pipe church organ , built using iron,oak and natural materials and lit by fire,flame  and candlelight. The towers were to burn with fire when the truands attack the cathedral as Quasimodo rained down molten lead on the attacking forces, Esmeralda would burn rather than be hanged, fire was everywhere.

So much more than a 19th century romantic Gothic Fantasy, Victor Hugo wove universal themes of abuse of power, racism, intolerance and exclusion  into an epic tale where Notre Dame Cathedral and Ananke or Fate take leading roles, this was my challenge and my justification, this has remained a timeless story because it addresses constants, archetypal human characteristics, innocence, strengths and weaknesses, as valid today as when Victor Hugo wrote it, the same dramas, the same injustices unfold, human greed, lust and avarice play alongside love and compassion.

I delved deep into the history of Notre Dame, researching the instigators and builders who created this monument, I questioned their motives, examined the minutiae of carving and detail, marvelled at the drive to build such an awe inspiring structure and the faith and belief that inspired and  drove the masons and master craftsmen. Reading of the Benedictine monks who farmed and contemplated nature in the great monasteries of the 12 century, The symbolism and meaning of everything, God was present in a leaf, a flower ,trees ,the weather , all of nature, The advent of the great Gothic Cathedrals across Europe with their naturalist carvings and sense of light, complementing and paying homage to the beauty of nature,  The dark side of managing the house of God, where religion takes responsibility and monopolizes the conversation with God, ‘Your life on earth is hard and short, but pay your church dues and observe our rites and we will guarantee that at least in the afterlife you will know joy’

 

Searching for Esmeralda, assembling a cast, collecting materials, ongoing social media discussions about costume, music, special FX and the nature of Ananke, Does man have freewill or is all predetermined? What is fate? Do we have choice?

Philosophical discussions unwound late at night on whatsapp or messenger across countries; religion, alchemy, Plato, Virgil, Aristotle through to nature, celtic art and the Gods and Goddesses, Mother Nature and Chaos.

Synchronicity and coincidences everywhere, things happened as they should within the chaos of a healthy environment.

 

Practicalities, trailers, horses, money, vehicles, set, metal, wood, generators, toilets, insurance, tentage, rehearsals, a cook.

My joy at setting off on another circus journey, involving horses ,travelling, collaboration, great people and creativity, mud, sweat and tears ,all life is here.

How on earth can I built something that is even a reflection of Notre Dame Cathedral?

How can I do justice to such a story?

And I dreamed and let myself dream into the life of the story and always visiting Notre Dame Cathedral whenever I could. Dreaming Quasimodo's torment and Esmeralda's passionate naivety, Frollo's twisted brilliance and Phoebus the arrogant peacock, Fleur de Lys' privileged complacency and Gringoire's incompetent vulnerability, the horror of the faceless terror of the church and state, and the fickle cruelty of the mob.

 

All this and it was just a story, a story written in 1831, set in 1482 about a Cathedral built in the 12th century that we would recreate and tour in 2019.

A magical tale that we would be proud to show, a collaboration of artists, makers, performers and dreamers brought together to bring our show to the people and take it on the road.

Always swinging between excitement and panic! Passion and fear! How on earth would I manage it?

It was just a story. It will be OK

And then on Monday night I got a phone call;

‘Notre Dame is on Fire’

I struggled to understand, ‘what do you mean?’

‘Notre Dame Cathedral, It's on fire!’

Everything changed,

looking at the images , watching the spire fall, watching the roof burn, this could not be happening, and then ‘what about the show? Can we still do it? What does this mean?

 

Watching through the night as once again the Cathedral survived, Fate had taken a hand, watching the outpouring of grief and emotion, it meant far more than just a religious building, The fire hit France in the heart.

Watching as huge donations were pledged within hours of the fire, struggling to understand and square this with the just causes that are desperate for funds, publicity and support in this cruel and unfair world. Struggling to equate this with Paris being the homeless capital of Europe and all the ongoing war, injustice and misery that continues to rage across the world.

Watching as a sense of relief took hold that it was still standing, It would be reborn, Easter and rebirth are here, a reincarnation, the wheel turns.

Do we still do the show?

Yes, Fate has cast the die, it has come alive and become real and important in a way I never envisaged, I have no idea how this latest evolution will play out, we will start rehearsals on Tuesday, we will tell the story of Notre Dame de Paris and honour Notre Dame Cathedral, Ananke and Humanity.

Paul Liengaard

17/04/19