Stage: Of Human Bondage

OfHumanBondage

Adapted from W. Somerset Maugham’s epic novel of the name name, Of Human Bondage focuses on medical student Philip Carey’s obsessive love for manipulative tea-shop waitress Mildred Rogers, and explores themes of art, class and privilege, and love.

While the semi-autobiographical novel (which I have yet to read) starts with Philip’s early years in Paris, the play omits this to begin instead with his entrance to medical school in London. Although Philip is a promising student, his club foot has made him self-conscious and insecure, untrusting of other people’s high opinions of him. He initially dismisses tea-shop waitress Mildred as vulgar and common, but asks her out anyway and is quickly smitten.

The script is good, but what elevates Of Human Bondage are its evocative design and staging, and the strong performances from its cast, anchored by Gregory Prest as Philip Carey and Michelle Monteith as Mildred Rogers.

Gregory Prest plays Philip Carey as a character who has both a certain superiority about art and beauty, and yet is self-destructive and depressive. An early scene where he is humiliated in a class of his medical student peers, as the lecturer forces him to put his disability on display,  makes it easier to see why Philip would continually fall in thrall to a woman who abuses him. Of course, in her rages Mildred only serves to deepen Philip’s belief that he is not worthy of love. Not coming from a privileged background, the choices he makes impact him monetarily to the point where he seems poised to lose everything he has left, and the deeply sympathetic portrayal makes it difficult to watch.

Not having read the book, Michelle Monteith’s Mildred first struck me as assertive and independent. Initially Mildred’s restraint and seeming caution about moving too quickly with Philip, as well as her repeated coy “I don’t mind” refrain struck me as practical, but as the story progresses, Mildred’s other favourite phrase, “if it gives you pleasure” turns out to be her words to live by. She repeatedly turns on Philip when a better offer for comfort, wealth, and a good time comes along. I don’t know that it’s possible to make an audience like someone like Mildred, who blatantly and without remorse manipulates Philip financially and emotionally, but Monteith is never over-the-top and she is so convincing that at times you can understand the pull she exerts over Philip.

It is a testament to both actors that it becomes uncomfortable and even difficult to watch Philip continually be drawn back to Mildred just to undergo more of her abuse. Monteith’s performance is a masterclass in manipulation as she humiliates Philip, making him beg on his knees. In particular, there is one scene where Mildred is introduced to Philip’s handsome school friend Griffiths. The moment she learns that he has graduated and will be earning money, her behaviour shifts and she begins to flirt with Griffiths and exclude Philip for the rest of the night. When Philip becomes upset, she’s able to manipulate him so effectively that he even gives her money to spend the weekend with Griffiths!

The two leads are supported by equally strong performances from Sarah Wilson, as the charming divorcee and novelette writer Norah Nesbit, Stuart Hughes and John Jarvis as Carey’s artist friends, and Jeff Lillico, as Carey’s handsome medical student friend Griffiths, among others.

A tale of obsessive love that goes beyond reason, Of Human Bondage expertly explores the full range of human emotions. Its characters feel love, loss, fear, despair, and jealousy, and all of these emotions feel real and earned. I cared so much for these characters in spite of, or perhaps because of, their flaws that, not knowing how the play would end, I found myself hoping desperately and against type that it would end happily because I wasn’t sure that I could emotionally handle tragedy.

The production is enhanced by a minimalist but effective set. A large red square serves as the playing area, but left and right of the square are shadowed, and actors who don’t appear in a scene provide background sounds, music, and noises of the tearoom, gardens, or industrial London. In one scene, Philip and Norah sit facing the audience as we hear the final lines of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest spoken by actors in the shadows. The audience watches Philip and Norah watching the play. This use of sound combined with lighting that can instantly change the tone and location of a scene from the bright lights of a sunny day in the park to the use of shadows to create an eerie atmosphere immerses the audience in turn of the century London.

Additionally, the inventive staging is some of the best I have ever seen. Actors holding frames close to their bodies freeze in place on stage to give dimension to the portraits that adorn Carey’s flat, or hold the frames at arms length to convey a mirror. There’s a live montage in which Philip buys a flower and then a necklace from a vendor and Mildred accepts them elsewhere on stage in the next instant. And in one effective scene, the use of shadow and light combined with a chair knocked over convey suicide by hanging.

I was fortunate enough to grab a rush ticket and catch the closing performance of this excellent Soulpepper production. Ultimately, I found the play so profoundly moving that it was hard to believe I had nearly missed seeing it. This is a beautifully designed and staged, well-acted play that is at times difficult to watch in its intensity. If you’re in New York this summer, or have a chance to see this production at any point in the future, it is not to be missed!

Of Human Bondage closed its Toronto run on March 17th, but you can catch the play in July 2017, at the Pershing Square Signature Center in New York City.

Photo of Paolo Santalucia & Gregory Prest, by Cylla von Tiedemann

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4 thoughts on “Stage: Of Human Bondage

  1. OHHH YAYYY I’m so excited to read this review

    Interesting that the play omits his childhood! I was wondering how they condensed such a long story. That was probably a good call. The childhood stuff is important to his overall character development, but probably would have translated as a bit boring on stage.

    And YES the thing I love so much about this story is that I really felt like I was reading about the entire human experience, all the happiness and despair and everything in between. I’m SO glad to hear that got captured on stage, because I think the humanity of the story is the most important thing about it.

    The staging sounds so interesting!! I really hope I’m going to be able to see it in New York! And I can’t wait to see what you think of the book!!

    Like

    1. Even as is it’s a long play, running 2.5 hours including a 20 minute intermission, so there definitely had to be some condensing, but it doesn’t feel long. The staging choices are really interesting, and includes the actor playing Philip lying on stage (the first act ends with a nightmare) through the entire intermission! I heard one audience member asking the usher if he stayed on stage the entire break and the usher telling her, yep that’s what he does.

      I was honestly thinking please don’t let this be an A Little Life situation as Philip loses more and more. You know me, usually I’m all for sadness but I felt so attached that I wasn’t sure I could bear it!

      I really hope you’re able to see it in New York as well! I’d love to hear your opinion on the play, especially since you’ve read the book! It has been moved up my tbr list for sure.

      Liked by 1 person

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