Of Human Bondage — On Stage At Last

 

 

by Beatrice Williams-Rude

 

To all in the US who are contemplating moving north: Fear not the cold—the theater scene sizzles, as Canada’s Soulpepper on 42nd Street so admirably demonstrates.

 

Arguably the jewel in the crown is Of Human Bondage, the first ever adaptation for the stage of W. Somerset Maugham’s magnificent novel. While there have been three movies–the 1934 version with Leslie Howard and Bette Davis which is said to have made the latter a star; a 1946 offering;  and one in 1964, which this ardent admirer of the book found disappointing–the current presentation by Soulpepper marks the book’s debut on stage.

 

Paolo Santalucia, Gregory Press

Paolo Santalucia, Gregory Press

 

 

And what a splendid, remarkably collaborative effort it is! Vern Thiessen’s superb adaptation brought to fruition  by the innovative designs  of Erika Connor, Mike Ross and Lorenzo Savoini, working hand in glove with director Albert Schultz, who is also Soulpepper’s artistic director. (The stagecraft alone would make it worth a visit.)

 

With the exception of Gregory Prest (Philip) and Michelle Montieth (Mildred) all the other members of the cast play multiple roles—and each character is a uniquely polished gem. Among the many awards for this production is one for “ensemble,” which is especially fitting.

 

Of Human Bondage deals with obsession, primarily Philip’s with Mildred, but also with the irrational addictions of humanity in general.

 

Mildred is a waitress in a tea parlor, who has little to recommend her except passably good looks. She’s cruel and destructive. Philip, orphaned at an early age and without much-needed emotional support, has a club foot. He’s artistic, sensitive, highly intelligent, but with low self-esteem. Mildred cares nothing for Philip, although she’s perfectly happy to use him when necessary. No matter how badly she behaves toward Philip he always takes her back when she comes to him in need, in one case turning away a delightful woman, Norah Nesbit, who loves him.

 

Among the brilliant touches, we hear snippets of music hall fare, indicative of Mildred’s taste, and a segment of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of  Being Ernest, which Philip and Norah relish.

 

Oliver Dennis, Gregory Prest

 

Mildred is on a downward trajectory, having been betrayed by the man for whom she dismissed Philip. She’s unmarried, pregnant, and Philip takes her in and pays for care of the baby. She professes profound gratitude, then goes to Paris, not with Philip, as had been planned, but with his best friend, who quickly tires of her. In a final show of “gratitude,” Mildred destroys Philip’s art work, chiefly nudes he’d painted in Paris.

 

Philip, having gotten some recognition for his work in Paris, has nonetheless concluded that he’s a mediocre artist and he cannot live with mediocrity. Thus he goes to medical school to take up his late father’s profession.

 

When he’d gone broke and was living on the street he was taken in by a man he’d treated in a clinic, a charming elf-like imp with seven children, who’d made Philip a part of the family, and whose eldest daughter, Sally, has fallen in love with Philip.

 

It is in his capacity as a student doctor in the worst section of London that he again encounters Mildred, a prostitute suffering from syphilis.

 

Philip, the central character, who’s  on stage most of the time, is heroically played by Gregory Prest. This is indeed a bravura performance. Mildred is beautifully portrayed by Michelle Montieth, but her natural warmth and charm make her far less repellent than was the character in the book.

 

Sarah Wilson & Gregory Prest

 

Because this is an ensemble effort in which 10 of the 12 cast members create multiple characters, each carefully crafted  and brimming with vitality, all deserve to be mentioned. So here they are with only their main roles listed: Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster (Sally); Oliver Dennis (Dr. Drell); Raquel Duffy (Alice); Stuart Hughes (Cranshaw); John Jarvis (Thorp Athelney); Jeff Lillico (Griffiths): Richard Lam (various); Paolo Santalucia (Dunsford); Sarah Wilson (Norah Nesbit); and Brendan Wall (Miller).

 

My admiration of the book is such that I approached the theater feeling a mixture of eager anticipation and trepidation. Maugham fans can rejoice! Soulpepper pulls it off. This is glorious theater.

 

Of Human Bondage. Through July 29 as part of the Soulpepper Festival (see schedule below) at  the Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues).  Two hours, 25 minutes with a 20 minutes intermission. www.soulpepper.ca/newyork

 

 

Photos: Cylla von Tiedemann

 

 

 

The Soulpepper Festival runs July 1-29. Below is the schedule for the remaining performances of Of Human Bondage.

Wednesday 7/5 at 7:00 PM

Thursday 7/6 at 7:00 PM

Saturday 7/8 at 7:30 PM

Sunday 7/9 at 2:00 PM

Wednesday 7/12 at 7:00 PM

Friday 7/14 at 7:30 PM

Saturday 7/14 at 7:30 PM

Wednesday 7/19 at 2:00 PM

Friday 7/21 at 7:30 PM

Saturday 7/22 at 2:00 PM

Sunday 7/23 at 7:00 PM

Wednesday 7/26 at 2:00 PM

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