Elena Roger is making a habit of playing doomed heroines. After Evita and Edith Piaf, the Argentinean actress plays Fosca, another character – albeit it a fictional one this time – whose life hangs in the balance.
It is a brave role to take on. Throughout Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical Passion, Fosca is referred to by the other characters as ugly, so ugly in fact that no man could possibly desire her. The costume and make-up team at the Donmar Warehouse have done a good job at making Roger, if not ugly, then certainly a drab and unattractive sight. With a ghostly pallor to her skin and heavy shadows under her cheekbones, she is a tiny, bird-like figure, her blue eyes peeking out from beneath a heavy curtain of hair, often shrouded in a drab scarf.
The reason for her appearance is that Fosca is sick and has been for some time, a victim of circumstance. Now living with her uncle, a Colonel in the Italian army, her colourless life is brightened by the arrival of young officer Giorgio, for whom she develops an obsession. But Giorgio is in love with Clara, who he has left back in Milan.
There is something of a Stephen King novel about Fosca. Once she has latched on to Giorgio she uses her illness as an emotional weapon to beat him with, threatening to die unless he pays her attention. As her behaviour gets ever more obsessive, she becomes a truly creepy figure, her wiliness showing in her beady eyes. She may not boil any bunnies but she comes close.
She is a stark contrast to the doll-like beauty of Scarlett Strallen’s Clara, all flowing blonde hair and peachy skin. The central dilemma of David Thaxton’s virile Giorgio at first seems no dilemma at all, but as Fosca draws him into her world it is at least partly understandable why the frankly bonkers but interesting Fosca may provide something of an antidote to the one-dimensional Clara.
Jamie Lloyd’s production, pared down for the Donmar stage, is played out on a simple Fresco-painted set – beautifully lit by Neil Austin – which adds to the film noir feel of the piece. The three central performances are complemented by solid support from the collection of army officers, who act as a gossiping chorus as they speculate about developments between Giorgio and Fosca.
A programme note states that Igninio Ugo Tarchetti, the 19th century Italian author upon whose novel Passion is based, was writing autobiographically. If that is so it sends a shiver down the spine to think of someone being caught in the emotional clutches of a character like Fosca. Hysterical, maddening, driven by her passion, she is a character any modern thriller would be happy to emulate.