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William Somerset Maugham’s masterpiece reveals the withering devastation wreaked by obsessive, twisted love’s sadism and masochism. Though the work has been transferred to the medium of film three times, it has never before made it to the stage.

Theater Review (NYC): ‘Of Human Bondage’ by William Somerset Maugham, Adapted by Soulpepper Theatre Company

Soulpepper's Of Human Bondage, Michelle Monteith, Gregory Prest, William Somerset Maugham
Michelle Monteith, Gregory Prest in Soulpepper’s adaptation of William Somerset Maugham’s ‘Of Human Bondage’ (Cylla Von Tiedemann)

Love is a scourge if it becomes an obsession that devours one’s soul and fouls one’s career, friendships, and very life. And what if the pursuit of the love object is never requited with sincerity and kindness? William Somerset Maugham’s masterpiece Of Human Bondage reveals the withering devastation wreaked by obsessive, twisted love’s sadism and masochism.

Though the work has been transferred to the medium of film three times, it has never before made it to the stage. It took a renowned playwright from Canada, Vern Thiessen, and a visionary artistic director, Albert Schultz (who directs the production), to meld their hearts, minds, and artistic genius in a lively discussion about doing the the work. And it took Canada’s Soulpepper Theatre Company to have the will to commission Thiessen to write Of Human Bondage the play, so that an adaptation of this immemorial story of human desire and repudiation would be able to soar on stage.

Theirs is a remarkable effort. The production from beginning to end is breathtaking. The playwright and director unfold Philip Carey’s (Gregory Prest is just stunning) journey of infatuation for Mildred Rogers (Michelle Monteith’s wickedness is infuriating), into and out of emotional enslavement. The depiction is mesmerizing, voyeuristic, horrific. The characters descend into an abyss touching upon class strife, gender exploitation, the crippling derangement of inferiority, self-deception, soul entrapment, sadism, and masochism in a tour-de-force that encapsulates the novel’s seminal themes. Soulpepper Theatre Company’s vital, visceral production magnifies the best and worst of human nature and relationships in all of their exceptionalism, and refracts it all through the brilliant Maugham’s lens. It’s an exaltation of the novelist’s work that will remain unparalleled for a long while.

The play has won numerous Dora awards (Canada’s equivalent to the Tonys) and deservedly so. How Thiessen, Schultz, the transcendent cast, Lorenzo Savoini (sets and lighting), Erika Connor (costume design), Mike Ross (composer and sound designer), and others crystallized the novel’s essence and distilled its characters and story into the magnificence that is currently playing at The Pershing Square Signature Center, is most probably a fascinating story in itself.

Of Human Bondage, Soulpepper Theatre Company, William Somerset Maugham, Jeff Lillico, Gregory Prest
(L to R) Jeff Lillico, Gregory Prest in Soulpepper’s adaptation of William Somerset Maugham’s ‘Of Human Bondage’ (Cylla Von Tiedemann)

These talents united to shape an epic production akin to Greek drama. Each applied a singular talent, passion, and focus, understanding that they were/are contributing to something of great moment. With expertly conceived and executed unity, harmony and coherence in the acting and the theatrical spectacle, and in the sound effects, music, lighting, seamless staging, props, and costuming, not only are we transported back into Victorian England, we are elevated into the characters’ consciousnesses and realms of feeling and emotion, especially those of Philip Carey and the pitiably proud Mildred Rogers.

Shame, embarrassment, and self-consciousness about his club foot have deformed Carey’s personality and emotional nature, though he is a promising medical student, wise and humane, with artistic talent which he has thrown over for medicine. Thiessen cleverly reveals Carey’s weaknesses, which nearly destroy him: competitiveness, envy, slavishness, self-blindness to his own need to control others with manipulative acts. Thiessen also reveals his strengths: his artistic, soulful impulses, his lifelong ties to artistic friends, his kindness, his perception, his insight.

Carey becomes entranced with his colleague’s object of infatuation, the lower-class, uneducated and exploitive gold-digger waitress Mildred, who has no intentions of making a career plan or refining her inner emotional traits toward a more genteel way of living. We watch fascinated as her sharpened claws prod and dig into Carey’s flesh; she entangles him, torments his soul, and feeds off his misery. Their fates are sealed, regardless of the various sub-scenes which, layer upon layer, reveal Carey’s strengthened self-awareness, which he gains with the help of his artistic friends who show him the evolving corruption of Mildred’s soul and attitude. She arrogantly assumes she has power over him because of his weak desires. Ultimately, it is a bitter mistake; she uses it to destroy herself.

Though it appears to be the reverse, for a good part of the play, like Mildred, we are duped into believing that she controls and drains the lifeblood from Carey as he becomes more destitute and obsessed with her. He follows her whims, which she blows up into storms or breezes, and he is blown about by her, her kite to drop when another more “princely” man comes near, even his own colleague. Though he meets other learned and more attractive women through his concerned friends, Carey goes back to Mildred when she is rejected by suitors who dupe and dump her. Like an addict, he must get his Mildred fix, while she enjoys tormenting and acting superior to her clubfoot Quasimodo (his inferior perception of himself).

As each scene and interaction seamlessly slips into the next, we are driven by the emotions of the characters, whose fuses fire up then blow out based on their relationships with the protagonist Carey and the antagonist Mildred. Carey’s once pompous colleagues fall prey to their own addictions and failures, and Carey is thrown out of his rooms and his medical school because he wastes his money on Mildred each time she returns to him. However, his artistic genius is still alive; can his corrupted soul be redeemed by a finer love?

Ironically, it is Carey who actually is the subtle master of the relationship. His passive, puppy-dog slavishness is the iron chain that binds Mildred into the sadistic domination to which he submits, and which, self-destructively, she cannot do without. He is and always was the “better” person. Regardless of how much he allows her to feel her mastery over him, he controls that dominance and has her on a long lead. It is why she resents him, though she never has the self-awareness to realize why she hates him (she indeed hates her own urge to oppress as the culture oppresses her). If she had gained self-awareness, she would have picked herself up from the gutter and attempted to change her life and annihilating ways.

Of Human Bondage, William Somerset Maugham, Soulpepper Theatre Company, Oliver Dennis, Gregory Prest, Vern Thiessen,
(L to R): Oliver Dennis, Gregory Prest in William Somerset Maugham’s ‘Of Human Bondage’ adapted by Vern Thiessen commissioned by Soulpepper Theatre Company (Cylla Von Tiedemann)

As the play’s ending lifts us toward the light, the playwright reinforces the theme with a symbolic object, a gift Carey receives from his friend. He lost this possession when he was destitute, but it is restored to him, and Thiessen has poignantly woven this symbol/object/theme throughout the play. It is whimsical and profound, beautiful and sad; it represents a conjunction of Carey’s life, and it wraps around Carey’s new circumstances as it once wrapped around the skeleton Carey used for studying human anatomy (another profound theme). It is Thiessen’s meta-theme and it is heartbreaking and simply gorgeous.

The actors, especially Prest, Rogers, Oliver Dennis, Stuart Hughes, John Jarvis, Racquel Duffy, and Sarah Wilson, are smashing, but the ensemble, who also play instruments, sing, and perform sound effects (i.e. doves, horses sauntering, street noises) and generally tell the story and give it shape are all exquisite and fit together like the threads of a priceless tapestry. What hath the director Albert Schultz wrought? In a word, majesty.

I can’t sing this production’s praises enough except to say see it, see it, see it while it is in town if you are in New York City. Or look for the marvelous company’s work in Toronto. This production is gobsmackingly singular.

Of Human Bondage runs until 26 July at the Pershing Square Signature Center. It has one intermission. Tickets may be purchased at the Box Office on 42nd Street, by calling 888-898-1188, or online.

About Carole Di Tosti

Carole Di Tosti, Ph.D. is a published writer, novelist and poet. She authors three blogs:
The Fat and the Skinny, All Along the NYC Skyline, A Christian Apologists’ Sonnets.
She contributed articles for Technorati on various trending topics. She guest writes for other blogs. She covers NYC trending events and writes articles promoting advocacy. She was a former English Instructor. Her published dissertation is referenced in three books, two by Margo Ely.

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