About 20 minutes before the end of Passion the woman sitting on my left had to dig some Kleenex out of her pocket. During the curtain calls, and without any kind of ceremony, she shoved one of them into my hand. Wiping away tears I once again found myself at odds with the detractors who claim that Stephen Sondheim’s shows are brittle, cold and lacking in passion.
From the soaring finale of Sunday in the Park with George to the 11th-hour anthem from Into the Woods, Sondheim amply illustrates that he knows how to calibrate emotions – even knows how to make sentiment sophisticated. Yet for many viewers Passion remains one of those plays that fits into Hamlet’s “caviar to the general” category.
In truth, this isn’t the easiest of evenings. There is nothing upbeat here and there’s just a single intentionally insignificant joke generated by the secondary characters’ dinner menu. So, even though I don’t agree with them, I do understand why some people fail to get pulled into the maelstrom of this show.
Any committed Sondheim fan has already encountered two top divas in this show: Donna Murphy won a Tony in 1994; Maria Friedman was given an Olivier Award for the same role a couple of years later. Now it’s the turn of Elena Roger to take on Fosca, the unlikeable anti-heroine who – however improbably – ends up seducing not just the play’s leading man but the audience as well.
We’re in the Italy of Verdi and Lampadusa. Fosca is a deranged, probably tubercular recluse. She’s the hapless poor relation of a provincial army captain who commands a remote and barren outpost. Her paroxysms are triggered by the arrival of Giorgio, a handsome soldier ordered to this backwater from cosmopolitan Milan where we have already seen him tumbling around in the throes of an illicit affair with Clara, a married woman he met by chance in a park.
David Thaxton’s Giorgio and Scarlett Strallen’s Clara are love’s young (albeit adulterous) dream. Together they’re a pulsating life force. In stark contrast, Fosca is some sort of tormented fanatic. She’s a stalker. Her unreasoning obsession for Giorgio is nothing less than harassment.
Roger’s inkwell-deep eyes are as dangerous as a basilisk’s – rapacious, painful, powerful. Her cataclysm is the “sheep from goats” crux in James Lapine’s book (based on a 1981 film by Ettore Scola). If you can’t accept that Fosca is wheedling her way into Giorgio’s feelings, then the rest of the evening is bound to come across as ludicrously implausible.
Passion is conceived as a single relentless trajectory performed without an intermission. It is the Sondheim musical that has most benefited from the special relationship between the composer and the intimacy of the Donmar space. The collaboration stretches back to 1992 when Sam Mendes directed the U.K. premiere of Assassins as the first show in the Donmar’s inaugural season. This was followed by Company, Into the Woods and Merrily We Roll Along, plus a Chicago import of Pacific Overtures. Each of them proved how this 250-seat venue compliments Sondheim’s vision. In this case praise must include the set design from Christopher Oram as enhanced by the lustrous lighting of Neil Austin. And, as always, laurels go to Sondheim’s long-time orchestrator Jonathan Tunick.
Passion is the centrepiece of London’s celebrations for Sondheim’s 80th birthday. Additional party pieces included a Proms concert at the Royal Albert Hall, one-off concert stagings of Company and Merrily We Roll Along, plus an evening with Sondheim himself at the National Theatre to launch the publication of Finishing the Hat: The Collected Lyrics of Stephen Sondheim. Director Trevor Nunn summed it up beautifully: “Stephen is a writer you c