Gentlemen! Five paces!” The duel that climaxes Stephen Sondheim’s “Passion” has had its 10 paces’ span halved to squeeze onto the stage of the Donmar Warehouse. But the dramatic potency is scarcely reduced in this chamber reworking of the 1994 musical. This deeply felt inquiry into the irrational nature of love is compacted to a 105-minute running time, without interval. The sacrifices are insignificant; the gains are in the terrible momentum accrued as our hero, the soldier Giorgio (David Thaxton), falls fatally in love with the selfish, demanding — and irresistible — Fosca (Elena Roger), invalid cousin of his commanding officer.
There are few noticeable cuts from the original, but Jamie Lloyd’s production is pacier, and the staging more spare.
As Giorgio, Thaxton is less transparently virtuous than Jere Shea, who created the role — it’s less easy to see why Allan Corduner’s Doctor Tambourri would describe him as “embodying goodness,” or indeed why Fosca finds him so distinctive from his comrades. But he emphatically depicts Giorgio’s descent into fever and nervous collapse.
Roger musters less intensity as Giorgio’s nemesis than Donna Murphy in the Broadway original. Her Fosca is less morbid, more playful and wryly amused. But Roger, and the production, duly exert their grip. What’s striking is the conceptual richness of Sondheim’s hypnotic cycle of songs: the way the lyrics insist on beauty even as Giorgio loses his grasp on what that is; that repeated word, “nothing,” implying the annihilation Giorgio must face should he choose the love “without pride or shame, wisdom or judgment” that Fosca offers. He does choose it, of course, but it isn’t consummated: Fosca and Giorgio are not given a sex scene here to parallel Giorgio’s tryst with his married mistress, Clara (Scarlett Strallen), that opens the show.
Jonathan Tunick’s lush, insistent orchestrations loosen the drama from any sense of love as something manageable. Perhaps it’s a false dichotomy, this choice between Clara’s “logical, sensible” love and the destructive force offered as its opposite. But, like “Romeo and Juliet,” “Passion” implies that neither is “true” love; that any certainty in love is only ever provisional. Love is dark and unfathomable, a convulsive sickness, as much about pity and punishment as pleasure. And we are complicit in the agonies it inflicts on us. Unflinching, indomitable, Roger’s clear, strong vocal tolls this painful truth like a bell.