‘Die, Fosca! Die’ was the call from the auditorium in response to the first production of Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Passion’ in May 1994. Theatre trolling alive and well before the internet even existed. Who would have known? No such reaction from the audience gathered in a packed Hope Mill Theatre this evening I can assure you, but I will come back to that…
Based on Tarchetti’s 1869 novel Fosca, Passion is one of the few projects that Stephen Sondheim himself conceived. When it first opened on Broadway in May 1994 it was admired by critics but not by audiences who were utterly repelled by the character of Fosca, the woman with whom Giorgio eventually falls in love. Unattractive, manipulative, obsessive, relentless in her pursuit of this younger man, audiences refused to believe that the handsome soldier would ever fall in love with her, even going so far as to cat-call during performances and applauding her meltdowns.
I like Sondheim as much as the next person and this piece, as expected, relies on his trademark lyrical style, complicated syntax and clever rhyming throughout. The narrative of obsessive, all encompassing, unrequited love is heavy, challenging and at times quite dark and although well performed by the ensemble cast, the material itself did not completely grab me and drag me willingly along for the ride.
Leading the cast as Fosca, Ruthie Henshall was engaging and vocally nuanced, but the production did not enable us to completely invest with her as a physically hideous and unlovable woman because she simply wasn’t. This is a musical and needs a performer with a strong vocal range and skill, which Henshall certainly has, but Fosca is a not really a very nice woman physically, emotionally or spiritually and ultimately, she comes across and being more likeable than she should and someone to whom we can feel some empathy which for me, just misses the mark.
As Giorgio, the object of her desire and obsession, Dean John-Wilson delivered a strong and at times moving performance. His rejection of Fosca was clear and direct, understandable given the convincing and passionate love he shared with Clara, performed by the excellent Kelly Price.
The officer chorus supported well but did not provide us with the comic relief which would have been so welcome. Its absence lay in the script rather than the cast who made the most of the material and generated a good rapport.
Elin Steele’s set was sparce, effective in reflecting Fosca’s emptiness, and used screens and cyclorama to convey space and elongated perspective. The soft flowing side curtains hinted at a padded cell, which worked well and was supported by atmospheric lighting throughout.
This is a good production. Some elements, the Direction of Michael Strassen and the Musical Direction by Yshani Perinpanayagam were great, but ultimately this particular Sondheim, for me, is flawed.
Flawed? Sondheim? Surely not? The audience gave it a standing ovation! Yes, I said I would come back to that….
The flaw is in the narrative that obsession, stalking, refusing to accept rejection will successfully lead to passionate love….. not for me it doesn’t. I can understand early audience reactions of shouting out that Fosca should ‘Die!’ I would never have shouted out and would never have wished her dead, but I did sway from wanting to exclaim ‘Give it up love, he’s just not into you’ in Act One two‘ What the hell? How can you just suddenly switch and LOVE her?’ by the end of the piece.
Men. I’ll never understand them.
Playing until 5 June, https://hopemilltheatre.co.uk/events/passion
Reviewer: Lou Kershaw
Reviewed: 10thMay 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★