Of Human Bondage
For the first ever stage adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s titanic novel Of Human Bondage, Vern Thiessen has made the bold choice to excerpt the story he was most interested in telling from the 800 page life-spanning tale of Philip Carey. He smartly has streamlined and simplified his chosen plot- the tragedy of Mildred Rogers- and only a few elements from the discarded action are particularly missed (I was struck most by the rather different effect of Griffiths’ suicide without Fanny’s to precede it, and the absence of Philip’s parental backstory left me looking for an explanation as to why he behaves as he does).
What I missed most notably in adaptation was actually the limited omniscient narration. On paper, Philip’s contradictory nature and well-hidden emotional truths are plainly communicated (never under-estimate the power of knowing a character is calling a woman “heartless, vicious and vulgar, stupid and grasping” even if he doesn’t say it out loud). On stage, the myriad of things Philip is convincing himself not to say have but one way out, and that’s a lot of pressure to put on Gregory Prest’s face (that would be a lot of to ask of anyone’s face).
The effect is a softening of Philip from his book self to his stage self. He’s still a thoroughly flawed character given to harsh words and harsher judgements but he’s now significantly more Prestian. There’s a harmless sweetness to the actor’s stage presence that informs all his characters (Aside: this quality would play to fascinating effect in a pure villain role the likes of which Prest’s resume still lacks. Let’s put Iago or some contemporary counterpart on the list after Hamlet, yes?). The few cutting insults that Philip does allow himself to verbalize, when delivered in Prest’s light cadence (as opposed to, say, the growl of a Stuart Hughes or the boom of an Albert Schultz) read less as revealing beams of bitterness and more as the big talk of someone wishing he were rougher. A darker Philip helps at least a little bit to humanize the cruel object of his affection Mildred (played valiantly but thanklessly here by a vibrant Michelle Monteith) but the loss of said ambiguity comes as a tradeoff for something perhaps even more valuable: when Gregory Prest’s heart breaks, the audience’s heart breaks too (even if he does struggle a bit with his English accent).
Philip’s complexity (and thus the story’s complexity) is lost a little in translation and, intellectually, that really hurts the production, but what Thiessen, Prest and director Albert Schultz have managed to do is make the audience empathize dramatically with one of literature’s most infuriating protagonists, and that’s what’s important in this version- that we care about our hero. Framing the piece with a poignant minor incident from the novel wherein Philip treats a young man who shares his ailment but none of his crippling insecurities, Thiessen emphasizes that his is a lighter version in general and thus it’s somehow appropriate that Philip’s darkest thoughts and inner demons never make it to the audience’s attention. He gets our pity, not our reproof.
Schultz’s work is across the board superb, partnering with set/lighting designer Lorenzo Savoini and composer/ sound designer Mike Ross to strike a hauntingly sad tone that permeates the whole play from the eerie and symbolically rich opening (the cast gathers one by one with bows in hand to form a large, dissonant chord on a single cello laid out on an operating table, creating the visual effect of sawing at the sick) to the bittersweet and somewhat abrupt happy ending. Artistic invention rather than big budget trickery allows the characters to live in their sprawling universe without anything seeming bare-bones, Schultz’s clever, lyrical staging creating some of the most lingering theatrical images of the year so far (my favourite remains that superbly haunting opening with the cello but the living portraits that hang on Philip’s walls come in close second).
The supporting cast is full of pros and they deliver as expected in roles that either suit them beautifully (wide-eyed Paolo Santalucia as Dunsford; Jeff Lillico, devastatingly charming as Griffiths) or strangely (I see how Oliver Dennis captures Lawson’s spirit but is he not a full generation too old for the part?). Particularly effective are the smart, sane and calm women who orbit Philip’s life, throwing inarguable perspective onto the mess that is Mildred. When confronted with the warmth and spirit of Sarah Wilson’s delightful Norah Nesbitt, it’s only the gratitude Prest infuses in his performance that saves Philip from seeming idiotic for overlooking her. Thank god for Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster’s sweet Sally, a lone redemptive figure able to pull our hero from his downward spiral. As Thiessen’s version concludes, a happy life with Sally seems a fitting end to a tumultuous time for Philip. For readers of the novel, the thought of such a lovely girl in the arms of such a damaged man sits uneasily. But this is not the novel’s Philip, this is Gregory Prest’s Philip and he looks just about right walking off into the sunset with Ms. Lancaster, optimistically contented.
The Road to Mecca
Of Human Bondage is a tale of unhappy people caught in self-abusing spirals. In a moment of sympathy for his audience, Artistic Director Albert Schultz has paired that dark, poetic piece with a moving and honest portrait of people who deserve to and want to be happy. The Road to Mecca is like a breath of fresh air.
Walking into the Michael Young Theatre, the audience is met with the busiest, brightest set I think I’ve ever seen (courtesy of designer Beth Kates). At intermission I remained in my seat (which I never do), soaking up the opportunity to stare, uninterrupted, at Miss Helen’s “Mecca” and all its revelatory detail. When the ever-regal Diana Leblanc enters as the creator of such a space, it’s as though she’s not a stranger- we’ve been seeing her in every inch of her home since the moment we sat down.
Leblanc is wonderful as the incandescent oddball trying to hold on to her independence. The uncomfortable mixture of her firm principles and unreasonable stubbornness flummoxes the younger characters (Shannon Taylor is particularly radiant as the paradoxically idealistic and jaded schoolteacher Elsa) while also reading as one of the more relatable conundrums of adult life- how to care for the older generation without undermining their right to care for themselves. It’s the most human of stories- a small, personal conflict with no hero, no villain and no right answer. Athol Fugard’s play is set in South Africa- and it benefits from a wealth of political and cultural complication and beauty stemming from that setting- but it could be anywhere. These are characters with fears and dreams and concerns that hit right to the heart of anyone watching them, no matter who they are. It’s a play full of humans in all their messy imperfection, determined in their quest to be happy and good and do the right thing.
Charming and quirky with a small cast in the smaller theatre, The Road to Mecca is the supporting player in this Soulpepper Spring Season, the relatively simple counter-programming to Of Human Bondage’s flashy World Premiere. But it will be a real shame if this beautiful piece of honest, optimistic storytelling with its heartfelt, vanity-free performances gets lost in the shadow of the company’s inevitable big hit. I actually preferred this smaller of the two spring offerings; it enticed my mind and lifted my spirits. Of Human Bondage ends with a happy ending but what really made my heart soar was the thrill, potential, and satisfaction of Elsa’s final declaration to Miss Helen: “Open your arms and catch me; I’m gonna jump”.