Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Of Human Bondage, A Play by Vern Thiessen - Soulpepper Theatre


Of Human Bondage - Soulpepper Theatre
Of Human Bondage - Soulpepper Theatre

Of Human Bondage, a Play - Soulpepper Theatre


Finally I am in the right place at the right time!

Of Human Bondage on stage, adapted by Vern Thiessen, directed by Albert Schultz, led by Gregory Prest and Michelle Monteith as Philip and Mildred. I admit that I had my doubts, as usual as one goes to one’s favourite work translated into another genre, and I admit that I have a very pleasant surprise.

Toronto in the Fog
Toronto in the Fog

A foggy day in Toronto. Greeting me when approaching the Union Station were a series of high-rise residential buildings under construction, in the manner of Benidorm. A most surrealistic sight, skyscrapers from some movies about our apocalyptic future with their tops hidden mysteriously in the silent fog. Wind was blowing bitterly littered with spitting rain, and I wondered if it was a good idea to go to a play on a day such as this.

Unfortunately, the wind urged me on to my destination, the Soulpepper Theatre, and I didn’t have a chance to linger over the most interesting looking Distillery District.

The Young Centre is at the end of the block and I was literally blown inside. Upon opening the door I found a warm and crowded hall full of vibrant conversations.

A wet and dusty visitor, I felt all eyes were upon me (which is not true except making one feel dramatic).

Let’s start the show!

Of Human Bondage - On Stage


I have collected reviews [*] so far without reading them, since I didn’t want to know too much about the play or others’ opinions.

Opened by a little speech by Dr. Tyrell about the hardship Philip is going to experience in life, the play starts with Philip in St. Luke’s. It focuses then on the story about a young man struggling to find his place in society and his romantic relationships.

The end of the opening scene is very impressive with the actors gathering together striking notes on the bass in the middle of the stage, which in turn casts a shadow on the wall creating an effect of Philip being sawn off from every side.

Soon my initial doubts were obliterated and I was absorbed by the play. Scenes are being weaved closely into each other, very cleverly done. Of Human Bondage contains strikingly short chapters and they are reproduced faithfully on stage, with short scenes overlapping.

The stage is shifted continuously and seamlessly. Nothing is static. The flashbacks are expertly done, which are at the same time separated clearly from the present events and merged completely with the narration. A lot of thoughts must have been spent on their integration.

At the beginning I found Philip a little indifferent. Of course I am familiar with his background, the other half of the story before he studies medicine, which is not told, but then his struggles accentuate and his character takes shape.

His artistic inclination (and ability) is highlighted, too much as I believed at first, but then it is a projection and interpretation of the narrative part of the novel, from the descriptions (narration) of what Philip is able to see, an instance of how the playwright’s interpretation merges in the play.

I confess that I am not a regular theatre-goer. It strikes me as immensely innovative to continue Philip’s sufferings on stage during the intermission. Prest lay on the ground (~15 minutes), rolling gently (excruciatingly) from time to time while the audience chatted, went to the washroom, got a drink, walked around, stretched their legs. I stayed to see what he was going to do. If you take it metaphorically, Philip’s humiliation is an overwhelming spectacle in itself.

Another staging that is done very well is the background noise, which creates the atmosphere of the rapid changes of location, the tea shop, the busy London streets, the music hall, the restaurants, the pubs.

Details of setting are ignored. The stage props are reduced to the minimum, but they work extremely well with the background sounds. You are sucked into them and provide the intermittent images yourself.

As for the characters, it is impossible to retain all of their originals as in the novel. Philip is Philip. The audience gets to know him more and more, even with the first part of his life missing. Mildred is fantastic, highly supported by her cockney accent. I have to say that I didn’t like Bette Davis’ Mildred (nor Leslie Howard's Philip, who is sort of wooden). Monteith’s “I don’t mind” does get on your nerves.

This post is getting too long already. All the other characters are well-acted. I am especially impressed by Griffiths’ (Jeff Lillico) suicide scene.

However, I find Sally sort of out of character. She appears to be too forward from her more reserved version in the novel, and thus seems over-acted. She does know her mind, but not that vocal in the novel. Cronshaw is quite another character all together, but it shows well on stage.

The Persian carpet is thrust on the audience all the time, just in case that you don’t get it. It is as well that it is just a dirty rug, so you have to use your imagination, but it would have been much better not to remind the audience to remember it so often.

The ending is much more uplifting than the novel. I guess it would have been too much to leave the theatre with the same message that Maugham is giving in his much longer work. The novel is more poignant. It is true that Philip has learnt the same lesson, but he learns it alone. There is no possibility of sharing it as in the play, that Sally understands him.

His marriage to Sally is a compromise, although he does it willingly, in the form of self-sacrifice. In the play, his part is much more positively active.

The audience of my show seemed to thoroughly enjoy it and had a ripping time. I never thought Of Human Bondage funny, but there are witty and humorous lines, which shine on stage. Now I am dying to see a play of Maugham acted.

As a play in itself, Of Human Bondage is very effective and demonstrates a very admirable effort.

So, this is a definite must-see if you have a chance.


Note
[*] Ouzounian, Richard. "Of Human Bondage: Review." The Star. 25 April 2014.
Nestruck, J. Kelly. "Of Human Bondage: Maugham Captured in Sight and Sound." The Globe and Mail. 25 April 2014.
Mackay, Evan Andrew. "Theatre Review: Soulpepper’s Of Human Bondage." Post. 28 April 2014.

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