Review: Of Human Bondage (Soulpepper)

Soulpepper, Of Human Design

Soulpepper adapts Of Human Bondage, the classic novel of unrequited love and the human condition, to the Toronto stage

At the end of the first act of Soulpepper’s production of Of Human Bondage, based on the 1915 classic novel by W. Somerset Maugham, I asked my companion what he thought so far. He liked the staging but found that the story was overly focused on unrequited love. I argued that there were other themes as well: addiction, poverty and class; the value of art vs medicine in society; and the role of loyalty in friendship. But I also agreed that, to someone with minimal engagement to older literature, some of the romantic histrionics might seem irrelevant. But didn’t unrequited love still exist? Aren’t modern relationships just as fraught? I couldn’t put my finger on what was missing from the play.

But after the end of the show neither of us were capable of holding onto any reservations. By the finale it was clear to me at that there hadn’t been anything lacking in the first act: that unsatisfied sensation was simply from being halted in the middle of a story. It’s something that can happen when translating from one medium to another. A theatre audience can’t sit on their bums for over two hours – we need that intermission. As a novel, Of Human Bondage has many chapters, not two nicely defined acts.

But it doesn’t matter because the show is worth the minor interruption of an intermission. The staging is masterful – every transition is a work of art. People disappear, swallowed up by the stage itself, and I know it was a trap door but it looked like magic. People take up residence in picture frames to become art or mirror reflections, but do not stay static while doing so: they supply vanity items, or they read letters written in the hand of one of the characters that they play.

A piano transforms to a stage within the stage, with chanteuses performing for Philip Carey (played by Gregory Prest) and his date at the time, who was either the vile and manipulative Mildred, played as a compelling sociopath by Michelle Monteith, or the delightful independent writer of penny dreadfuls Norah, played by the charming Sarah Wilson.

The piano is a real instrument, and various other instruments are kept onstage as well. The performers all seem to be multi-talented, deftly switching between – or combining – playing a musical instrument, singing, acting multiple roles, and manipulating parts of the set pieces to create arresting images. The stunning opening involves many bows at work on a large string instrument, with light and shadow used to eerily foreshadow the hardships poor Carey will face. There is a suicide scene that I doubt I will ever forget for the simplicity and power of the visual.

I was very impressed with the attention to detail that went into creating an immersive experience for each of the many settings. When Cronshaw, a failed poet played by Dan Chameroy, is drinking himself to death in a tiny attic room, the scene is accompanied by the soft cooing of pigeons. It would have worked just fine without any pigeon sounds, but with them the sense of the environment was incredibly fulsome. And the whole play is like that.

Albert Schultz has once again triumphed with his impeccable direction, and much respect has to be given to the skill and stamina of the performers – none of whom ever left the stage, and who created a lifetime’s worth of different, honest, complex interpersonal relationships. I am also very impressed by Vern Thiessen’s adaptation of Of Human Bondage. It’s a dense novel and it had to be challenging job but Thiessen has delivered a really lovely script, harrowing and touching, perfectly elucidating how much of life is dependent on the double whims of emotion and chance.

Details

Photo of Dan Chameroy, Gregory Prest, Oliver Dennis & others by Cylla von Tiedemann