Saturday, October 30, 2010

This week we finally got to see PASSION at the Donmar. You know the year is speeding by when that show it seemed absurd to book so far in advance for is suddenly the next day.

I had deliberately not read any reviews for this production but I was worried going in as Jamie Lloyd is not a favorite director and I had heard there was 'streamlining' of the score - this worried me as the score for PASSION seems so hermetically-sealed that it's hard to see where trimming could take place without disrupting the flow.

However very soon into the show I was forgetting all my worries. Jamie Lloyd, for all his speeding problems, has directed the best version of the show I have seen. The original London production was top-heavy with the casting of Michael Ball and the over-rated Maria Friedman and the Bridewell production - as was usually the case with that theatre - was slightly under-whelmingly cast. But here, the production is as intense, focused and driven as the play's anti-heroine Fosca, it has the hothouse atmosphere of an invalid's sickbed.
The musical has a book by James Lapine and is based on Ettore Scola's 1981 film PASSIONE D'AMORE which is itself based on the novel 'Fosca' by Ugo Iginio Tarchetti. Tarchetti died of Tuberculosis aged only 29 while writing the novel so the strange, feverish nature of the story can be fully understood knowing that fact. The original production ran only nine months from 1994-95 but still deservedly won the Tony Awards for Best Musical, Score, Book and Actress for Donna Murphy.

Giorgio is an army Captain who is enjoying a passionate affair with the married Clara which is interrupted when he is drafted to a remote outpost. He is warmly welcomed by Colonel Ricci and Dr. Tambourri while being viewed somewhat suspiciously by his fellow soldiers for his literary interests. He soon learns there is another inhabitant of the outpost, the Colonel's sickly cousin Fosca who stays in her room and whose agonised cries are heard often.
Giorgio lends her some of his books and Fosca makes a rare appearance at dinner to thank him for his generosity which he confesses in his letters to Clara he only did at the prompting of the Doctor. It is soon apparent that Fosca has become obsessed with the handsome Captain and haunts Giorgio wherever he goes, driving him to distraction. His attempt to end their friendship leads to a decline in her health and the Doctor begs him to see Fosca again. Fosca asks one thing of him - that he writes her a love letter which she dictates much to his discomfort. He later learns she was married once but was swindled of her fortune and left destitute.

The constant drain on his emotions takes its toll and Giorgio becomes unwell. However he cannot bring himself to go on a lengthy sick leave which angers his superiors and makes him the subject of barrack room gossip. Giorgio slowly begins to question whose love is more real - Clara's carefully managed trysts or Fosca's total devotion. The news that Giorgio is to be transferred leads to a hysterical collapse from Fosca and the Colonel, suspecting Giorgio has led her on, challenges him to a duel...

Sondheim's lush score seems to never pause for a moment, using several leitmotifs to keep the music swirling around the mind only coming to rest really for two wonderfully pure love songs - or declarations of intent - sung by Fosca "I Wish I Could Forget You" and "Loving You". I defy anyone to listen to the score and then make the complaint that Sondheim is not a romantic composer.

The production has no interval so the plot's momentum is allowed to sweep one along unlike the original London production which had an interval after the scene where Fosca dictated the letter to Giorgio and which completely destroyed any intensity.

The usual Donmar design suspects are also much in evidence - Christopher Oram's stark set of three rounded double doorways beneath a painted faded mural of classical lovers is aided immeasurably by Neil Austin's romantic lighting, grey/blue for the outpost or warm sunlight for Clara's Milan.

The role of Fosca demands an actress who can turn on the intensity and Elena Roger can certainly do that. The Donmar's artistic director Michael Grandage is getting a lot of use out of her: she was his Evita in the West End, his Piaf at the Donmar and beyond, now she is Fosca... he must be scouring the shelves to see what will fit her ripe personality next as she ain't the easiest performer to fit in a show. One might suggest Googie Gomez in THE RITZ!

Her intensity and heavy accent at first pull the focus a little as there are no other attempts at Italian accents in the cast and I *did* fight hard to get the images of Edith Piaf, Rita Moreno and Liliane Montevecchi from colliding in my mind but slowly the intensity became muted and she had a wonderful quality of stillness in her solo numbers, you could feel the audience holding it's breath as she sang them.

She has been unfairly picked on by some - yes Whingers - but I am glad she played the role - it could have been Jenna Russell playing another Sondheim female role in an 'ecky thump' Northern accent.David Thaxton was new to me and I thought he excelled in the role of Giorgio, he has a fine singing voice and although his singing slightly overshadowed his acting he is still a name for the future methinks. Scarlett Strallen played Clara and, despite a worrying degree of Langfordism (Bonnie is her aunt) in voice and expression, she also was fine.

There was excellent support from Allan Corduner as the meddlesome Dr. Tambourri and David Birrell as Colonel Ricci. Birrell was sporting an eye patch from the incident in early October when the gun he uses in the duel scene misfired and led to him being hospitalised and a few shows cancelled as the Donmar has a no understudy policy. I should praise too the nine piece orchestra under the musical direction of Alan Williams for their rich, full sound.

It may not be one of Sondheim's more popular works but you will find PASSION a haunting experience if you can get a ticket.

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