Stephen Sondheim’s Passion opens with an archetypal scene of romance. Two lovers, Clara and Giorgio, locked in embrace, sing of ‘so much happiness’, bathed in a lush orchestral aura that ebbs and flows with their expression. However, as soon as this scene of halcyon days has been established it is torn apart. The plot begins its inevitable progress, but nevertheless the song continues, the words and music the same and yet somehow transformed. It is a typical Sondheim twist that tilts us from a world of optimism to one of fragility and anxiousness, a mood that is perpetuated across Curious Grin’s production, currently running at the Keble O’Reilly theatre.
Passion is one of Sondheim’s least performed musicals, a late work that represents a new extreme in his output. There are no musical set-pieces, no uplifting ensemble numbers, no pauses for the audience to applaud except at the end of the acts. Everything is subordinated to the steady development of plot and the emotional turmoil of the characters, flowing seamlessly between song and spoken word. Perhaps this is some explanation for Passion’s lack of popularity; it challenges our expectations of how musicals should be.
This performance, at the O’Reilly Theatre, deals admirably with its various technical demands. The three main characters – Girogio (Alex Ohlsson), Clara (Georgia Figgis) and Fosca (Emilie Finch) – are all as well acted as they are sung. Finch in particular managed to maintain a seamless blend between her acting and singing that was utterly convincing, despite the difficulties of the role. The supporting cast provided a rich backdrop of boisterous soldiers, austere doctors, and conniving counts, even if the quality of acting was not quite on the same level. The staging was simple yet effective, although at times the lack of space seemed to cause a struggle, resulting in an excessive number of scene-changes in the second half. The band rose to the challenge of the score and the difficulties of synchronisation, with members of the orchestra apparently split between two locations, connected by video-link.
Indeed, this score may be one of Sondheim’s best. Taking the most basic and clichéd of romantic tropes and transforming them into something complex and ambiguous, like Fosca’s ‘poisoned flower’. There is an obsessive clarinet figure that keeps returning, but does it represent love or danger? obsession or abandonment? The music often builds to a crescendo of passion, but then leaves us hanging on a dissonant chord, which simply dissipates. The lush scoring is in constant conflict with the martial rhythms and fanfares that abruptly cut through, providing an apt parallel to the script’s play between dreams and reality.
However, the weakness of this musical perhaps lies in the script itself. At times the characterisation feels a little underdeveloped and the motivations rather forced, while the concluding scene lacks the power that perhaps it ought to have. Although Sondheim has never been averse to ending his musicals with a nihilistic gesture (see Company or Merrily We Roll Along for example), this instance was startlingly abrupt. The script is at its strongest when it transcends the realism of the main plot: moments like the ensemble passages, where the soldiers suddenly take on a Greek-chorus-like role, and the dream sequence, where multiple melodies from earlier in the action are stunningly blended together. The strengths of the cast really seemed to come to the fore at these points.
There is much to recommend about this production, and the rarity of the experience alone makes it worth a visit. Don’t expect to be uplifted or to sing along to the tunes, but do expect to be drawn in by its beguiling strangeness. I have found that those compelling melodies continue to echo round your head long after the final bows.
‘Passion’ runs at the Keble O’Reilly until Saturday 23rd May; tickets can be purchased here.