wed 28/06/2017

Passion, Donmar Warehouse | reviews, news & interviews

Passion, Donmar Warehouse

Passion, Donmar Warehouse

Sondheim revival does a tricky and disturbing show proud

How tall is too tall? Elena Roger, as Fosca, reaches for love (embodied by David Thaxton's Giorgio) in the Donmar's 'Passion'Photographs © Johan Persson

A vital theatrical partnership gets renewed, and then some, in Jamie Lloyd's revival of Passion, a transforming production that not only marks the start of various Donmar-related tributes to Stephen Sondheim in his 80th birthday year but also reminds us that this theatre reopened its doors in 1992 with the UK premiere of Assassins, since which time it has staged five further Sondheim shows; Passion, to speak as openly as this musical's heroine does of the entire spectrum from ecstasy to pain, is one of the very best.

A vital theatrical partnership gets renewed, and then some, in Jamie Lloyd's revival of Passion, a transforming production that not only marks the start of various Donmar-related tributes to Stephen Sondheim in his 80th birthday year but also reminds us that this theatre reopened its doors in 1992 with the UK premiere of Assassins, since which time it has staged five further Sondheim shows; Passion, to speak as openly as this musical's heroine does of the entire spectrum from ecstasy to pain, is one of the very best.

That the result is the triumph it is - and one's hopes are raised at first sight of a surpassingly beautiful set from Christopher Oram that looks as if Masaccio had somehow paid a recent visit to Covent Garden - comes, I have to say, as something of a surprise. That's due in no way to the nature of the talent involved, which includes the return to the Donmar of Elena Roger, who won a 2009 Oliver Award for her scorching turn in Piaf.

The abiding success story on this occasion is Lloyd's ability to make emotionally coherent and compelling a musical, adapted from a 1981 Ettore Scola film, that can be as difficult to warm to as the ailing, ravenously lovesick Fosca (played here by Roger) at its unyielding core. It's not just that the title seems a misnomer; surely Obsession would be more accurate? But Lloyd and his company meet that issue head on and simply hurtle forward, as Fosca herself would do. Scant surprise that by the end of 105 minutes (no interval), Roger's devouring eyes seem to have swallowed up the auditorium whole.

Indeed, I've rarely come across a piece of theatre that works on an audience just as its fiercely insistent heroine does on the handsome soldier, Giorgio (David Thaxton, in the male musical theatre performance of the year so far), newly arrived in her midst. The show, in turn, casts its public as so many variants on Giorgio: resistent, more or less inevitably at first, and possibly even repulsed and yet unable to deny the power of a show - and a character - that won't settle for anything less than full surrender.

You, too, might flinch from Fosca if you already had a beautiful (albeit married) lover in the blonde Clara (Scarlett Strallen, pictured below with David Thaxton), with whom Giorgio is seen in the throes of, yup, passion at the show's outset. That's until a transfer in assignment away from Milan removes Giorgio from Clara and into the predatory orbit of his commanding officer's cousin, Fosca, a raven-haired death force who is heard shrieking offstage well before this diminutive creature is first seen.

mattpassion2It was Edith Piaf, of course, who was known as "the little sparrow", a comparison applied here to the room-bound Fosca, who sequesters herself from view while the officers chow down - a veal joke provides one of very few laughs - and speak dismissively of her malaise. Boorish and self-impressed, the male chorus call to mind an older, 19th-century Italian military equivalent of the British swells seen earlier this year at the Royal Court in Posh, and the choreographer Scott Ambler moves them about like a ruinous collective next to which the sensitive, literary-minded Giorgio can't but emerge as a beacon of light to a woman adamant that she looks better in the dark. Fosca also speaks of an affection for castles that are ruined - a condition, one senses, to which she can relate.

And though Fosca has tended in the past to be the part that wins awards - a Tony for Donna Murphy in 1994, an Olivier for Maria Friedman two years later - this Passion makes clear the extent to which Giorgio drives the piece, not least because the superlative Thaxton conveys a visceral, wrenching fury to help suggest that, in some way, he and Fosca might indeed be soulmates, however grotesque he initially takes her to be. (Her behaviour nowadays might well prompt a restraining order.)

An alumnus of Les Mis (who isn't?), Thaxton towers over Roger, who should be used to such pairings from her career-making West End stand in Evita opposite the amply framed Philip Quast. The difference in height serves the piece, Giorgio at first regarding Fosca as some sort of human gnat that won't be easily swatted away. But that's to ignore the insistence of someone who in her refusal to go starts to gnaw at Giorgio's resolve. Eventually, his ongoing expressions of love to Clara are beginning to sound flat and pro forma next to the raw, exposed nerve that is Fosca, who in turn has the ability to turn Giorgio into a quivering wreck; Thaxton's gathering physical disrepair lends the role a pathos I had never thought it capable of before, with no small assist from the show's sinuous musical leitmotifs. (Verbal, too: the word "never" gets a work-out as if to pave the way for King Lear, coming next to the Donmar.)

Sondheim's score famously jettisons stand-alone numbers to create a musical weave whose Broadway acclaim 16 years ago seems even more astonishing given the degree to which, as a chamber opera, Passion may be the musical of his that suits the intimacy of the Donmar best of all. One hears traces of "The Last Midnight", from Into the Woods, in Giorgio's rampaging outburst, and the snarky comment made in passing of Fosca - "she just fell off her broom" - may be Sondheim and book writer James Lapine's sly homage to that previous collaboration, Grimm's Fairy Tales here given over instead directly to a study in grim. One of the main characters in Into the Woods is, of course, a witch allowed precisely the glamorous transformation so thoroughly denied the "wretched" Fosca.

Passion, like so much of Sondheim, is sure to divide opinion as his output always has

The visual components cannot be praised enough, Oram's ravishingly Italianate design - burnt sienna alongside pale apricot, and imagery you would be delighted to stumble upon in an Arezzo church - co-existing with lighting from fellow 2010 Tony-winner Neil Austin (Red) that near the start bathes Clara in a palpably sensual embrace, turning shivery across various hallucinatory sequences that recall director Lloyd's comparably high-voltage work on Piaf. Shame, though, about wigs for Roger that look as if they are weighing heavily on this ever-adventurous performer's petite frame.

Still, can even so deeply felt a Passion succeed in celebrating what Marivaux in a different context referred to as "the triumph of love"? Giorgio argues as much, using the "unconditional", unfettered emotionalism of Fosca as a stick with which to beat the rather under-dramatised Clara, whom Strallen plays with a (perhaps deliberate?) blankness in telling contrast to the excitable Fosca. (Roger's Argentinian accent, by the way, helps separate out a character who by definition exists apart, compromising the material only when it isn't entirely clear whether she is singing "leave" or "live".)

But notice the way that by the play's end the once cool, self-possessed Giorgio has become a physically undone version of the febrile, emotionally reckless Fosca we have seen at the outset, his soul upended for keeps, but at what price - sanity? Sondheim takes Company's central male, Bobby, on a journey toward "being alive" that, two decades on, is revisited in Passion at a grievous price. "I often don't know what to do with my feelings," Fosca at one point admits, and Passion, like so much of Sondheim, is sure to divide opinion as his output always has. Here, though, for the first time in my experience, is a production of this show to stir in me the very feelings evoked on stage, which is another way of saying that I never thought I could love Passion, and maybe now I do.

Comments

Lovely touch in that that the frescos on the walls of the set are all tales from Ovid's "Metamorphoses" - Leda and the Swan, Daphne and Apollo and (I think) Venus and Acteon - all tales in which humans or divines are transformed by the power of love.

Thank you so much for this review, it does the production justice, I think. And I agree with everything - I saw it tonight and Thaxton's performance was nothing short of sensational.

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