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article imageReview: Soulpepper’s ‘Bondage’ still an emotionally resonant experience Special

By Jeff Cottrill     Feb 25, 2017 in Entertainment
Toronto - It’s been nearly three years since Soulpepper premiered its acclaimed production of “Of Human Bondage”, which began its third go-around this week. The show heads to New York in July, and if last night’s reopening was any indication, it’s ready.
Adapted by Vern Thiessen from the classic W. Somerset Maugham coming-of-age novel, Bondage won a whopping seven Doras in 2014, including Outstanding Production, Direction and Ensemble Performance. And while it isn’t quite perfect – Thiessen’s script could have used a bit of cutting in the second act, which drags a little at times – Soulpepper’s production, the first theatrical staging of Maugham’s book, is a beautiful sensory experience in many ways. Inspired lighting, music, sound effects, blocking and atmosphere all come together into a glorious whole that packs an emotional wallop, although you may not feel all of it until you recall the show afterwards.
Directed with love and care by the company’s founding artistic director, Albert Schultz, Bondage is the story of Philip Carey (Gregory Prest), a sensitive, club-footed London medical student and amateur painter whose life is turned inside-out by his self-destructive, even puzzling, taste in women. Although faithful to Maugham otherwise, the play skips over Philip’s childhood and begins at the start of his medical studies, under the harsh but well-meaning mentorship of Dr. Tyrell (Oliver Dennis). He befriends conceited ladies’ man Griffiths (Jeff Lillico) and less confident Dunsford (Paolo Santalucia) at school, but he also yearns for the bohemian life of Paris, where he hangs out with artists Cronshaw (Stuart Hughes) and Lawson (Dennis again).
At a London tea room, Philip meets unrefined server Mildred Rogers (Michelle Monteith), on whom Dunsford has a crush. Initially put off by her – describing her as having “the skin of a frog, the chest of a boy and the laugh of a goat” – Philip soon becomes obsessed with Mildred, despite having nothing in common with her, but she has eyes for a well-to-do German businessman. While Mildred’s manipulation and mixed signals drive him crazy, Philip also finds honest, faithful devotion in Nora Nesbit (Sarah Wilson), an author of penny dreadfuls, but he never truly falls for her. His schoolwork suffers as Mildred toys carelessly with his affections, and Dr. Tyrell nails the play’s main theme in a nutshell when he shows Philip an illustration of a “cross-section of a diseased heart.”
This could have been a straightforward period soap opera, but what makes Schultz’s vision memorable is the imagination behind the technical side – thanks to set and lighting designer Lorenzo Savoini and composer/sound designer Mike Ross. You know right from the opening scene that you’re seeing something special and different: students in Philip’s medical class appear to be sawing at a cadaver at centre stage – but it turns out to be a bass, with the saws as bows. Music and sound play a big role in this production, with offstage actors playing instruments and even providing sound effects (horse clops, bird chirps) that work surprisingly well. Savoini’s set uses a lurking, hanging human skeleton to symbolize Philip’s failing medical ambitions, while representing his artistic aspirations by having live actors standing behind picture frames as his paintings. It suggests that Philip finds far more life in art than in being an aspiring doctor, regardless of his talent in either.
Like Soulpepper’s 2013 production of Great Expectations, Thiessen’s adaptation of Bondage is a selective, condensed version of a long, sprawling literary classic. Purists may object to his omission of Philip’s lonely, orphaned childhood and how his strict religious upbringing by his uncle helped to shape his personality and philosophy. (Also, I don’t recall reading the phrase “Sod off!” in the book, but it pops up a few times here.) But it would be hard to sit for a five-hour version of this play, and by focusing on the romantic and artistic themes, Thiessen may have made Maugham’s story more relevant for a modern, secular audience. Or at least more universal.
The performances here are all fine, though none in particular stands out – Bondage operates as an ensemble machine, with all the players working off each other and nobody upstaging anybody else. Prest, who also played George Bailey in Soulpepper’s recent It’s a Wonderful Life, appears to have found a niche in playing saps who get taken advantage of by others. The Toronto Star’s Richard Ouzounian thought Monteith was lacking the right “icy connivance” and “frightening rage” for Mildred in 2014, but I think she succeeds at making the character sympathetic and human. A more monstrous Mildred would make Philip’s obsession with her impossible to believe. (Besides, Philip’s needy, even stalky behaviour makes it easy to see why she doesn’t take him too seriously.) Monteith’s Cockney delivery makes Mildred’s “I don’t mind” refrain a little reminscent of Catherine Tate’s “Am I bovvered?” or even Eliza Doolittle’s “I’m a good girl, I am.”
Bondage may not be flawless or complete as a translation of Maugham’s novel, but it’s highly satisfying as work of theatre. It’s great to look at, and it expresses a lot of undeniable truths about love, infatuation, art, status, confidence and the slow process of growing into adulthood.
Of Human Bondage runs at Toronto’s Young Centre for the Performing Arts until March 11. It opens at the Signature Theatre in New York City in July.
More about soulpepper, Theatre, Of Human Bondage, W Somerset Maugham, Toronto
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