Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester – until 5 June 2022
“Love as pure as breath, as permanent as death, implacable as stone” – yep, Sondheim. While other, lesser, wordsmiths define love in terms of hearts, flowers and June moons, only Stephen Sondheim would equate it with mortality, finality, something hard and unyielding. Sure, there are lyrics in Passion that more conventionally celebrate the abandon and madness of amore (“love that fuses two into one, where we think the same thoughts, want the same things, live as one…”) but it’s that deep vein of rapturous despair that runs throughout and characterises Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1994 musical. It has seldom, if ever, been mined so richly and with such, well, passion as in Michael Strassen’s shattering new production. It’s sexy, dark and riveting.
Strassen and his world class team also find the comedy and the heat in a piece that can sometimes come across as cold and lacking in humour. That is emphatically not the case here, where the dramatic stakes feel extraordinarily high, and the show plays out with a rare urgency and white hot intensity. Set in 19th century Italy, this tale of an older woman’s obsessive love for a dashing, emotionally conflicted soldier in a remote garrison town is fleshed out with an exquisite attention to detail, and an unerring balance between the melodramatic elements of the book and score, and the harsh realities of these people’s lives.
Sondheim’s music shimmers and soars, with a kind of soured romanticism that is at once enchanting and vaguely creepy. It seldom breaks out into full standalone numbers, dealing instead in a mixture of recitatives, tantalising snatches of heartmelting melodiousness and brief moments of operatic flamboyance. It may not be immediately accessible perhaps but it more than repays the effort we have to put in as audience members.
Yshani Perinpanayagam’s superb five piece ensemble tempers the score’s delicacy with moments of genuine power (excellent orchestrations by Ed Zanders), and the singing throughout is thrilling. If Dan Sansom’s sound design is a bit overwhelming at times, the ominous background rumble is a fitting aural metaphor for the emotional turmoil at play throughout, and the sudden ear-splitting off stage screams of heroine (antiheroine?) Fosca unsettle and wrongfoot exactly as they should.
Ruthie Henshall is delivering some of her finest work to date in this complex, fascinating role. The way she vocally shapes ‘Loving You’, Fosca’s desperately sad yet steely declaration of her feelings for soldier Giorgio (“loving you’s not a choice, it’s who I am”) is a masterclass in acting through song, but it is her performance in the book scenes that may surprise audiences the most. Subtly subverting her innate charisma, she brings an almost classical depth to this conflicted, needy, melancholic woman, but finds a brittle, bitter lightness to some moments that rings entirely true. She’s as infuriating as she is pitiful, as though passing through life with several less layers of skin than other human beings.
There are multiple references throughout the text to Fosca’s extreme ugliness but, intriguingly, this production doesn’t go down the grotesque make up route (Henshall cuts a starkly beautiful figure whereas Donna Murphy and Maria Friedman were barely recognisable in the original Broadway and West End productions respectively) preferring instead to suggest that, at this point in history, being a lonely single woman over a certain age was “ugly” and hopeless enough, and that much of Fosca’s unattractiveness is both in her own head and in the role society has cast her.
This choice is borne out by having the equally lovely looking Danny Whitehead portray, hauntingly, the young Fosca in the nightmarish flashback sequence where Tim Walton’s striking Colonel (Fosca’s cousin) fills Giorgio in on the woman’s tragic past. The simultaneous looks of utter desolation on both Whitehead and Henshall’s faces upon realisation that Fosca’s been duped by Juan Jackson’s swaggering Count is pretty hard to forget.
If Fosca is confined by societal expectations as much as her own mental and physical ill health, Clara, the urbane married woman Giorgio is embroiled with in Milan, is equally trapped by her own sex and lack of independence. In Kelly Price’s revelatory performance, you watch the sunshine slowly drain out of the character as she realises that the other woman is far more of a rival than she imagined and that her less than complete commitment to Giorgio will never be enough for him. Price’s gorgeous, full-bodied soprano soars but it’s the layers and the truth in her acting that takes the breath away. This is the most satisfying and complex reading of the role that I’ve encountered: she’s profoundly sympathetic but with a real edge. Her final appearance, tear-soaked, on her knees, in a mirror image of a pleading Fosca from the first act, surrounded by fragments of a torn up final letter from the man she loves, however inappropriately, and contemplating a future devoid of passion, is supremely affecting.
Despite the external constraints on these women’s lives, Giorgio is as much of a victim as they are. There is a very telling moment where Fosca has coerced him into sharing her bed and while she caresses his face, Clara simultaneously hovers above, placing her hands on the top of his head: for a fleeting, chilling second that image conveys so much about the way that this man is being controlled and manipulated, even as it is a rare moment of table-turning in a particularly misogynistic time in history. Dean John-Wilson is a genuine, and marvellous, surprise in the role, capturing every note, colour and conflict of this fundamentally decent man, eager to please but caught between desire and duty, occasionally exploding into a rage that feels raw and authentic, and with a fatal undertow of a depression that may just be a match for that of Fosca. Musically and dramatically this is a flawless and fresh account of the role, all the more remarkable and unexpected when one considers that John-Wilson’s most high profile job to date was probably as Disney’s original West End Aladdin. This nuanced, intelligent performance deserves to open a whole new set of casting doors for him.
There isn’t a weak link in the supporting company, each one of which reads as a fully realised character, from Charlie Waddell’s fresh-faced company cook to Adam Robert Lewis’s extravagantly vocalising Lieutenant and Steve Watts as a delightful trumpet playing Major. Ray Shell brings a compelling mixture of insinuation and kindness to the Doctor treating Fosca, and Tim Walton, for the first time in any production that I’ve seen, makes one realise how much the Colonel genuinely loves his cousin.
Elin Steele’s impressionistic designs are simple but gorgeous, an array of panels traversing the set to give a sense of almost filmic motion. Charlie Morgan Jones’s painterly lighting is another plus, transforming the limited space with an astonishing precision and mood manipulation.
Make no mistake, this is a world class Passion, and one which any Sondheim nut, or indeed anybody who wants to see a collection of remarkable talents at the top of their game, would be mad not to make the journey to Manchester for. One can only hope that it receives the further life it so richly deserves. I’ve seen five different versions -six, if you count the dvd of the original Broadway production- of this darkly intoxicating piece but have never been as gripped or ultimately as moved by it as I was here. Utterly brilliant. Loving it is not a choice, it is the only choice.