Saturday, September 25, 2010

Passion at the Donmar Warehouse

The Donmar Warehouse begins its celebrations of Stephen Sondheim’s 80th birthday with a staging of the composer’s 1994 musical, an emotionally complex piece based on the Italian film Passion D’Amore.

Giorgio (David Thaxton), a handsome young military officer, is in the midst of a consuming affair with Clara (Scarlett Strallen), a married Milanese woman, when he is posted to a remote mountain garrison.

Initially he finds this separation tortuous; he dreams of her and longs for her perfumed letters to arrive. Soon his gentle manner and bookish ways bring him to the attention of Fosca (Elena Roger), the colonel's invalid cousin. Being far from conventionally beautiful, a plain and sharp featured woman, Fosca has never been loved and her loneliness manifests itself in an intense burning for Giorgio. She throws herself at him both emotionally and, at times, physically. At first he is alarmed, repelled even, but there is something about the pureness and unbending quality of her love that comes to move him.

Elena Roger, returning to the Donmar following her Olivier Award-winning performance in Piaf, stands up to the challenge of playing a character as knotty as Fosca. She is at times both desperate and pathetic in the depth of her need, her emotions running out of control, yet Roger manages to balance out her character’s rather too frequent episodes of neurotic collapse with a clear-eyed pragmatism about the hand that life has dealt her.

Jamie Lloyd’s production brings an emotional potency to the piece while doing little to conceal quite how strange it is at times. There is something rather chilling and predatory about Fosca and the way she clings to Giorgio with an almost animal need. Her passion seems to have been building in her for years; it only took one kind deed to unlock it. Giorgio himself often appears to have very little to do with it so quickly and completely does she latch onto him.

Though Roger’s is the showier role, Thaxton is no less compelling as a man being slowly eroded by the heat of Fosca’s need. He does not shy away from showing how Giorgio’s acceptance of Fosca’s devotion comes at a considerable cost to him. Physically powerful in the opening scenes, he towers over the diminutive Roger but seems to shrink in stature as the story progresses, until finally he is left contorted and whimpering on the floor, broken.

Sondheim’s score lacks stand out numbers and is instead a work of layers and recurring motifs, its power slowly building. Lloyd’s production makes the most of the Donmar’s compact stage; the ensemble scenes are well handled, succinctly portraying the somewhat boorish atmosphere of the garrison, and it is strikingly designed, with a shimmering and beautiful set by Christopher Oram.

Yet there is something rather unsettling about the piece as a whole which Lloyd taps into and exploits; the abiding feeling is not one of love conquering insurmountable odds but something altogether darker and more ambiguous.

Reviewed for Theatermania

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