Italy, 1863.Giorgio, a young soldier, is bidding farewell to his mistress, Clara. He is to join his new regiment in the outposts of northern Italy . She, already being married, cannot accompany him, but they agree to write to each other regularly. Giorgio is a man going places; he has the confidence of his commanding officer, Colonel Ricci and is well-liked by his fellow officers.
Doctor Tambourri, the regimental doctor, is caring for a special patient, Fosca, the cousin of the garrison commander. She is ugly, ungainly and a recluse, seeking seclusion in books, which are her only passion and which are in short supply in the garrison. Giorgio lends her some of his. He is somewhat a dreamer but Fosca craves intellectual stimulus, and though frail and with an illness that manifests itself in hysterical convulsions, she clings to him.
In letters, Clara warns Giorgio to keep Fosca at arm's length but she becomes increasingly dependent on him, passing him surreptitious notes. Giorgio, realising the deep involvement Fosca has with him, asks for leave which is reluctantly granted. As he departs, Fosca asks him to write to her. When she finds out that Clara is already married, she becomes even more of a recluse shunning all contact with anyone except the doctor, who believes that her condition will only improve if, and when, Giorgio returns. When he does, Fosca dictates a letter that turns out to be a love letter from her to him.
Colonel Ricci tells Giorgio about Fosca's marriage to a worthless count, whose profligate ways and harsh treatment made her ill and left her penniless. They visit an overgrown garden and are caught in a rainstorm which affects Fosca so much that she faints and has to be carried back to camp by Giorgio. He too falls ill and is granted sick leave to recuperate in Milan. Fosca follows him to the train which will take him away from her. He begs her to give him up and return to the camp where she can receive medical attention.
Clara, meanwhile, has made a decision; she will stay with her husband and bring up her family - the affair with Giorgio is over.
Back at the camp, a transfer notice organised by the doctor arrives for Giorgio. This devastates Fosca who once again repairs to her room in much distress. The colonel discovers the love-letter, written by Giorgio although dictated by Fosca, and challenges him to a duel. That night Giorgio visits Fosca's room and acknowledges his love for her. The following morning, both he and the colonel are injured in the duel.. Months later a letter from the doctor informs Giorgio of Fosca's death just three days after the duel - which she knew nothing about. Having lost both the women who loved him, he is alone.
Clara: Scarlett Strallen
Giorgio: David Thaxton
Colonel Ricci: David Birrel
Lt. Torasso: Simon Bailey
Dr. Tambouri: Allun Corduner
Sgt. Lombardi: Hadyn Oakley
Lt. Barri: Ross Dawes
Major Rizzoli: Tim Morgan
Pvt. Augenti: Iwan Lewis
Signora Fosca: Elena Roger
Music and Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Book: James Lapine
Director: Jamie Lloyd
Designer: Christopher Oram
Lighting: Neil Austin
Choreography: Scott Ambler
Passion is not Sondheim’s most immediately accessible work, there are some (initially) unsympathetic characters, and there’s not a lot that’s hummable from the score for the walk back to the station afterwards. Its all too easy to get it all wrong, particularly when its on a relatively small scale. But in this production, everything is very well judged and done with just the right amount of reserve, so that later in the show when stops need to be pulled out a bit, there’s room to spare for the full histrionics to come to the fore (things do get a bit – well – operatic towards the end). Indeed, the character who banged his chair down just that bit too emphatically in one of the opening scenes probably learned his lesson as the entire back came off and there followed a few sticky moments during which he struggled to regain his hold on both his composure and his furniture. As the chair had to remain on stage for several minutes afterwards, the audience – or possibly just me - then had a great deal of pleasure watching various people sit on said chair and wondering if they were going to fall off it. Alas no – a quick slop of wood glue and the application of a rubber hammer to the joints backstage and all seemed to be well.
Summer Strallen looked ravishing (both in and out of her crinolines), like a cross between Anna Leonowens and a Botticelli angel, but it was difficult to imagine her falling for David Thaxton’s rather anaemic Giorgio. Somehow, he seemed just that bit too dull and ordinary to inspire Clara’s passion. Elena Roger, however, proceeded to wipe not just the floor but the walls and the ceiling as well with both of them as the embittered and ugly Fosca. Although standing at least a head shorter than anyone else in the cast, she wrestled with the inherent absurdity of her role like a prize-fighter and quickly subdued any misgivings that the audience might have had about how this ugly duckling could possibly tempt her prize away from Strallen’s gorgeous swan. In the bar beforehand, I’d said to a fellow audience member who had never seen the show before that, if she wasn’t in tears by the end, it meant that she had no soul; fortunately for me, there were several points when my own eyes began to prickle as the story reached a climax – although personally I could have done without the thunderstorm at this point.. Having had my English Literature teacher drum into my head constantly that “thunderstorms are a device which indicate a breakdown in society or relationships” (Shakespeare and Thomas Hardy are full of them), and having endured many operas with Him Indoors in which dramatic moments are underscored by someone backstage rattling a metal sheet like buggery while rapidly flicking switches on the lighting desk (Rossini never wrote anything that didn’t contain at least one Force 8 gale), I’m now on constant “Thunderstorm alert” at the theatre, rather like a taller and prettier version of Michael Fish, and I find them hackneyed and rather OTT.
This was a preview performance and I hope that the professional critics will give this revival all the plaudits and superlatives it well deserves.
Full marks to the set designer for clever use of the restricted space – a wall pierced with three arches and covered in crumbling frescoes of scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses; I spotted Leda and the Swan, Daphne and Apollo and (possibly) Diana and Acteon, subtly and cleverly highlighting not only the gradual crumbling away of the three central characters’ happiness, but also the idea that love given or received is capable of transforming even the ugliest duckling into something beautiful. Clever also was the incorporation of the Donmar’s upper balcony into the set design. Not so clever were the two idiots sitting next to me who sat cackling like a pair of ugly and demented ducklings through all the dramatic bits near the end and ruining things for those sitting around them. I shot one of them with a pointed comment in the hope that they might transform into adults who know how to conduct themselves at the theatre. But I don’t hold out much hope. Some ugly ducklings merely become big, ugly, noisy ducks.