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Of Human Bondage: Maugham captured in sight and sound

Chief among Philip Carey’s (Gregory Prest) poor romantic choices is Mildred (Michelle Monteith), a tea-shop waitress who abuses him time and time again.

Cylla von Tiedemann

3.5 out of 4 stars

Title
Of Human Bondage
Written by
Vern Thiessen, based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham
Directed by
Albert Schultz
Actors
Gregory Prest, Michelle Monteith
Company
Soulpepper
Venue
The Young Centre for the Performing Arts
City
Toronto

Has there ever been as achingly beautiful a beginning to a Soulpepper production as the opening of the company's new adaptation of Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage?

As Gregory Prest's Philip Carey, the club-footed artist-turned-doctor at the centre of Maugham's 1915 novel, swears his physician's oath, the other 10 members of the ensemble take turns sawing at what looks to be a cadaver lying on a gurney. But this body, in fact, is soon revealed to be a glowing double bass, the medical saws to be bows, and a cacophonous chord emanates from this human dissection, growing richer and riper the more ribbons are drawn across it.

Here is director Albert Schultz – with his designer for the eye Lorenzo Savoini and designer for the ear Mike Ross – summing up the theme of Maugham's novel in a picture and a sound. That, as Philip eventually comes to realize (albeit looking at a Persian rug, rather than listening to music), a man's life is as meaningful or meaningless as a work of art – and "out of the manifold events of his life, his deeds, his feelings, his thoughts, he might make a design, regular, elaborate, complicated, or beautiful."

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It's important that Schultz's flowing and eerily gorgeous production communicates this, because Vern Thiessen's stage adaptation of Of Human Bondage – the first in the 99 years the book has been in print – does a slightly spottier job at delivering Maugham's novel to us it all its complexity.

We are thrown into the middle of the bildungsroman's action with Philip (Prest, smartly muting his natural charms), having already had his continental adventures and given up his painterly ambitions, in the midst of medical studies in London. Despite a disability that embarrasses him, he seems cocksure and, as an uptight colleague Dunsfield (a spot-on Paolo Santalucia) remarks, as interested in "drink and women" as his studies.

How Philip's life progresses seems directly tied to whether he is making the right choices or wrong ones when it comes to women. Chief among his poor romantic choices is Mildred (Michelle Monteith, in a daringly dislikeable performance), a tea-shop waitress who abuses him time and time again – draining his bank account and his spirit – but who he keeps taking back into his heart.

Other more equanimous women such as Norah (Sarah Wilson), a divorced writer of romance novels, can not lure him away from this destructive relationship for long. "Oh, it's always the same," Norah sighs. "If you want men to behave well to you, you must be beastly to them; if you treat them decently they make you suffer for it.

"It's so inexplicable, what does it all mean?"

Enlivening Maugham's existentialist-lite universe are other characters, painted in bold, short strokes by the ensemble: Jeff Lillico is fine as a fellow doctor-trainee who succumbs to his vices, while as an older poet and painter, Dan Chameroy and Oliver Dennis deliver the play's funniest and saddest moments. (All the actors double as musicians and play multiple parts.)

If Of Human Bondage occasionally seems no more than melodrama, you can place some of that blame on the book's original author. As Gore Vidal has written, "Maugham spent his first 26 years in the 19th century and for the subsequent 65 years he was very much a 19-century novelist and playwright." But, in Thiessen's adaptation, Maugham's characters are occasionally gratuitously flattened as the narrative is necessarily telescoped. Class is blurred and backstories that might round out characters disappear, while the women, in particular, are either very bad, or very good. Each gets her appropriate reward, making Philip's grand, privileged realization about the tapestry of life at the end – presented here entirely without irony – seem trite and callous even.

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Schultz's musical production is such a pleasure, however, it's easy to overlook the flaws in the story or storytelling. He overlaps scenes, adds in poignant complementary images, and successfully pulls off an overarching motif involving empty frames that cast members hold up to become living pictures and mirrors. I particularly liked the racy paintings that Philip made in France that hang on his walls – here occupied by cast members Wilson, Raquel Duffy and Courtney Ch'ng Lancaster in the flesh. There's almost an acknowledgment in this that perhaps the women in Of Human Bondage aren't really as two-dimensional as they are in the play, that's just how Philip – and perhaps Maugham – sees them.

Follow me on Twitter: @nestruck

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About the Author
Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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