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Of Human Bondage Is Striking, but Not Subtle

Adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's novel is thematically and stylistically rich, but could use more heart.

Dan Chameroy, Gregory Prest, and Oliver Dennis in front of living portraits Raquel Duffy, Sarah Wilson, and Courtney Ch'ng Lancaster. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Dan Chameroy, Gregory Prest, and Oliver Dennis in front of living portraits Raquel Duffy, Sarah Wilson, and Courtney Ch'ng Lancaster. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

  • Young Centre for the Performing Arts (50 Tank House Lane)
    • May 5–24
  • $29–$74

Performance dates

May

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As the world premiere of a stage adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s famous novel, Soulpepper Theatre’s production of Of Human Bondage is the jewel of the company’s 2014 season. Not that it’s a perfect play—but it does flex the strength of Soulpepper’s acting ensemble, design team, and, well, budget. The arresting opening scene sees the play’s main character, Philip Carey, well-played by Gregory Prest, enter by rising through a trapdoor centre stage while other members of the cast appear to dissect a cadaver (they’re actually crossing bows across a double bass, which is lying horizontally on an operating table). A spotlight casts Philip’s shadow against a red-brick wall, so that the bows appear to saw through his stiff, upright body. Setting the tone for the rest of the production, the scene is striking, but not incredibly subtle.

Theatrical bells and whistles are on display throughout the play, which tells the heart-wrenching story of Philip, a man torn between the urgings of his heart and his mind. He’s a Paris-trained painter, but we meet him in London, where he’s studying to be a doctor (a much more practical career choice). When he’s with his student friends, he’s confident and suave, despite a club foot that causes him to walk with a limp. But that poise deserts him after one of those friends introduces him to Mildred Rogers, played by Michelle Monteith. His immediate infatuation with the intriguing but chilly Mildred soon demands all his time and money—and though Philip is offered frequent opportunities to regain control of his life through supportive friends and new romantic interests, the main storyline revolves around Philip’s tragic inability to resist Mildred, and how this failure affects his perception of both art and life.

In keeping with the themes of Maugham’s work, director Albert Schultz—aided by set designer Lorenzo Savoini and sound designer Mike Ross—turns everyone on stage into a player in the artistic creation that is this man’s life. When not actively participating in a scene, the cast sits on the sidelines, providing live musical accompaniment, setting sound effects, holding props such as mirror frames or windows, or acting as the portraits Philip painted in Paris that now hang in his apartment.

But while the work’s themes have been fleshed out and explored, the same cannot really be said of its characters. It’s understandable that the character of Philip is the most fully developed, but we’d like to know more about his medical school colleagues, artist friends, and the women he’s involved with. Sarah Wilson and Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster are fine as Norah Nesbitt and Sally Athelny—the former a self-possessed but lovelorn divorcée, the latter a sweet but opinionated teenager—but they remain to some extent caricatures. Mildred herself is thoroughly vile, and her sad fate is entirely the result of her own self-centredness. It makes sense that some storylines might have to be sacrificed when adapting a novel into a stage play, but in a play that focuses on the details of life and art—down to a single thread or brush stroke—these broadly drawn characters come off as unfinished.

The narrative that did make the cut, though, does have an exceptional rhythm and flow to it—a sign of Schultz’s experience as a director of epic dramas (like last season’s acclaimed Angels in America). If his signature stylistic flare sometimes borders on overkill, so be it.


CORRECTION: May 8, 2014, 10:10 AM This post originally stated that the instrument lying on an operating table was a cello, when in fact it was a double bass. We regret the error.

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