Passion at Donmar Warehouse

Apparently the reason why so many nineteenth-century heroines die of consumption is because having a fever supposedly heightens one’s sex drive. From that perspective, Violetta and Mimi are at the heights of their ‘powers’ when they’re at their most vulnerable. However, as we all know, sexually aggressive women, particularly ones who read, are dangerous (which coincidentally makes Passion an excellent companion piece to Breakfast With Emma). The sickly Fosca, suffering from some kind of consumptive hysteria, is another woman who feels too deeply and she uses books as a way to live through others without getting emotionally involved herself. She comments, “If you have no expectations/You can never have a disappointment”- there are few sentiments bleaker than that.

Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1994 musical Passion (inspired by a little known 1981 Italian film Passione d’Amore, which was in turn based on an equally obscure 1869 semi-autobiographical novel Fosca by Igino Ugo Tarchetti, written when the author himself was dying of typhus) is like being trapped a fevered dream cum nightmare. Jamie Lloyd’s chamber production (the intimacy of the Donmar needs no further comment) is very wisely played without an interval, in which the fever is broken with applause for the curtain call. It’s true that this is Sondheim’s most repetitive score (frequently labelled as ‘difficult’) and it doesn’t have the witty wordplay and humour of the other works. I firmly believe that ‘catchy’ and ‘memorable’ are two separate things. I find that the scores that take a little longer to get to know are often the ones that are the most rewarding.

In the crudest terms, Passion could be described as a sort of Beauty and the Beast story with the genders reversed, but the message (if there is one) is far more opaque than the idea of how “true beauty comes from within.” Sex, death, love, obsession and sickness are all so closely interlinked that they practically become interchangeable.

David Thaxton (who caused a fangirl explosion with his Enjolras in Les Mis that was practically unheralded for a show that’s been running for decades) excels in the extremely tricky role of sensitive literary soldier Giorgio, enjoying his matinees with his lovely married mistress Clara when he is transferred to a dreary provincial garrison where his superior officer’s scary cousin Fosca starts stalking him. His transformation from an ardent lover and military hero to an ‘alone and palely loitering’ wreck like the knight in Keats’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci, who has succumbed to Fosca’s almost vampiric ‘love without reason’ is charted with supreme sensitivity and his gorgeous baritone voice is a joy.

Elena Roger’s Fosca isn’t made to look repulsive; physically, she’s more of a ‘Poor, plain and obscure’ Jane Eyre type in a suitably governess-y dress (she also resembles the famously reclusive poet Emily Dickinson). Roger’s diminutive stature works brilliantly, suggesting that the idea of her being sexualised is grotesque because of the unsettling juxtaposition of her haggard face and childlike body. Her voice may not be pretty, but it’s remarkably expressive (and contrary to other comments, her diction was absolutely fine). However, it’s her extraordinary eyes that truly make the performance- they devour her prey with her bitterness and grimly sardonic acceptance of her fate.

The third member of the triangle is less well served by the direction. Scarlett Strallen is beautiful floating around the stage in her corsets and crinolines and has a soprano like a dream, but her Clara is a rather remote figure. I don’t think that the Giorgio/Clara relationship needs to be downplayed in order to make Giorgio/Fosca as sympathetic as possible. Their relationship turning into ‘Just another love story’ seems an inevitability as soon as Fosca appears, which I think somewhat undermines the bewildering nature of this piece in which nothing is that predictable.

Amongst the ensemble of boorish soldiers, Simon Bailey stands out as the soldier constantly shooting jealous looks at Giorgio, as well as the abusive fortune hunter. It’s hardly surprising that Fosca is drawn to Giorgio for his gentlemanly manner and the simple kindness of lending her his books- a soldier with a bit of culture is a rare thing indeed in this society.

Christopher Oram’s set cleverly uses frescoes featuring images from Ovid’s Metamorphoses– fantastical stories in which the gods transform themselves because of love, but which also have unsettling connotations of rape and bestiality. Neil Austin’s lighting is a thing of beauty, flooding the set in light so that the production literally shimmers.

Having listened to the cast recording dozens of times, I had hoped that seeing the piece in its entirety would answer that elusive question- why exactly does Giorgio fall in love with Fosca? I still can’t quite articulate it. Perhaps it’s more important to question how it happens. Fosca muses about Rousseau’s heroine, “The character of Julie is a great mystery.” One could say the same thing about Giorgio. And indeed all the characters in this piece.

Passion is playing at the Donmar Warehouse until November 27th. For more information, please click here.