Not to be resisted

~ The Times, 31/03/1996 by John Peter ~

Obsessive, destructive love is the theme of the latest Stephen Sondheim. A spellbinding piece of theatre, says JOHN PETER.

Stephen Sondheim's new musical drama is one of his darkest, but also one of his most exciting: a hard, stormy, unsettling and spellbinding piece of theatre. Passion (Queen's) begins as if it were going to be a grand romantic melodrama, but it unfolds gradually like a sinister black flower and reveals its true nature, which is a portrayal of love as an obsession, of love as a part of someone's very being, a driving force, a death sentence, a life sentence.

The setting is northern Italy during the Risorgimento of the 1860s. Giorgio is an army captain who has already distinguished himself in the Crimean war. He is having a passionate love affair in Milan with Clara (Helen Hobson), a married woman, when he is abruptly transferred to another garrison in a small town in the mountains. Here, in an atmosphere of provincial gentility and claustrophobic military camaraderie, he meets Signora Fosca, the niece of his commanding officer: a woman in her late twenties and the victim, apparently, of some mysterious, possibly mortal, neurasthenic illness.

Playing this stricken woman, Maria Friedman gives the finest and most harrowing performance of her career. This is unlike anything I have seen in musical theatre. She appears, quite unrecognisable, with a tight, white face battered by its own plainness, black hair brushed severely back into a bun, and a posture that suggests both defeat and aggression. At first I wondered why this girl was called a Signora; but her wretched past is eventually revealed to explain this. Fosca's life has been blasted by a lack of passion. She is the kind of person who makes you wonder whether she attracts, almost desires, misfortune: what cause is there in nature that makes these wounded hearts? Friedman gives Fosca a sense of implacable humility. She suffers proudly, angrily. These contradictions make her aggressive, but also vulnerable. Inevitably, pathetically, terrifyingly, she falls in love with Giorgio.

Giorgio's tragedy is that he is not brutal. He is a generous, likable young man who likes to be liked. He reads Rousseau's novels, which suggests that he is all too open to experience. Fosca tells him that she herself is not interested in books for their reality: she reads only to dream, to get away from life. You can see, as you watch Friedman's face, that this is no real liberation. Perhaps Giorgio is fascinated by Fosca's illness, which would be entirely appropriate to a 19th-century story: La Dame aux camelias was written in 1852 and The Idiot in 1872. If so, this is not made clear either in James Lapine's book, or in Sondheim's lyrics; but Passion has an elemental drive that leaves the subconscious in darkness hich is really where it belongs.

Michael Ball's Giorgio is a study in hard-learnt experience: a performance whose sensitiveness opens up only gradually as Giorgio is ensnared, tortured and perhaps liberated. The frank, boyish face grows visibly flabby and bruised by resentment, fatigue and guilt. Giorgio is not smug, but he knows that he is attractive, and he quite likes himself being nice to an invalid. One of the things that he has to learn the hard way is something that the Doctor (Hugh Ross) tells him, which is that beauty has a price and so has kindness. Ball makes it quite clear that Giorgio appreciates the Doctor being sensible and solicitous, but that he does not really understand what this means. People only understand such things when they are trapped by them. Fosca is the trap that awaits Giorgio's innocence.

The subject of Passion is the raw, helpless reality of passion. Clara loves Giorgio; she is even willing to leave her husband for him but only when her son is old enough to be sent off to school. Real life puts its alternatives on the table, and Clara knows that she has to choose. Fosca is different. "Loving you," she tells Giorgio, "is not a choice. It's who I am." Such love is like a totalitarian power taking possession of body and soul. Resistance is impossible because it is irrelevant. "Beauty is power," Fosca cries, "longing is a disease." If, as the Doctor had warned, beauty and kindness have a price, Fosca and Giorgio are both paying it.

But this does not mean that either of them is guilty of anything. As Fosca says, it's who they are. Giorgio is trapped by his situation and his natural kindness. Fosca blackmails him with her misery, her illness, her sensitivity, her solitude; but we all know that the most lethal blackmail is always the one that is not intended. It is, quite simply, vulnerability in action. Only the really downtrodden and the really needy can be so cruel and remorseless as to dig down to the vulnerable core of another person and make demands on it: they know instinctively where it is and exactly how to hurt it.

All this is beginning to sound less and less like a musical, which is what Sondheim's works are still often thought to be. He has three of them playing in London at the moment, which is a record for an American composer. A Little Night Music, at the Olivier, is a study in maturity and in understanding both other people and yourself. Company, at the Albery, is a satire on commitment, on private values on public display. Passion is different in tone and texture; it is tragic and melodramatic rather than melancholy or satirical. But what it has in common with them is a moral seriousness. See yourself. Know what you're letting yourself in for and, even more important, what you're letting others in for. There are no cut-price experiences. Sondheim's lyrics and Lapine's book are so intertwined that, at least on first hearing, they feel almost indistinguishable. I mean this as the greatest compliment, because it gives the play a sense of inextricable unity. The return and re-return of musical themes, the rerun and rephrasing of lines, the scenes where other characters sing as if to express someone's secret thoughts all these mould and weld the material into a whole, not seamless exactly, here and there even a little jagged and abrupt, but pulsating with a single, painful, thrilling passion. Only artists of the first rank can be so truthful to their own inspiration.

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