My Theatre

02 March 2017

Round Three: Of Human Bondage at Soulpepper

By // Theatre (Toronto)

Of Human Bondage is back for its third staging at Soulpepper. Written by Vern Thiessen, and based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham, the play traces the life of Philip Carey, an artist turned med student. Philip isn’t just just training to care for others but has himself a physical vulnerability – he has a club foot, something that figures strongly in the way he imagines others see him (which is sometimes true, sometimes less so). His own perception of himself centres his foot so much that he constantly sees himself as unworthy.

The first half of the show shows Philip slowly but surely being sucked in to a spiral of lust and obsession with Mildred, the waitress at a local café. He courts Mildred and has high hopes for their relationship, but it’s clear to the audience she is only lukewarm about him. It’s not ever clear what grounds his love for Mildred, because his alleged love seems to be more about a desperate need for validation than being very much about her at all. And while he is very good at taking care of others, he’s not so great at standing up for his own needs, and spends most of the play being taken advantage of by one person or another (with the exception of Nora, whom he can’t quite figure out how to love).

Gregory Prest manages to walk a line in which Philip is both endearing and pitiable and also deeply annoying. As an audience member, I had compassion for the ways in which he felt compelled to help others before himself, but was deeply aggravated by his alternating modes of doting and resentment with Mildred. In fact it reminded me strongly of Nice Guy Syndrome – an affliction of men who have watched too many bad romantic narratives who think that if they stick around long enough and perform good deeds, that their good behaviour will pay off in the form of a woman as reward. Of course, this isn’t helped by the fact that Mildred is obviously trying to get what she can from Philip. We watch Mildred’s narcissistic personality unfold as she eggs him on and then pushes him away, fuelling the fire of his naïve longing and obsession. In fact, so much tension has built up by the end of the first act that we’re left wondering if he might eventually snap and kill her.

In the second half, the play unfolds like a drama that wants to be a comedy (or maybe it’s a comedy masquerading as a drama?). Philip doesn’t need to change his beliefs to fit the world, as in a drama, but instead the world changes to fit his desires, like in a comedy. And so the second act seems an odd denouement, a surprising sort of resolution in which Philip doesn’t actually need to learn anything, or change, because his luck simply changes. Overall, Maugham’s story feels oddly contrived and very unsatisfying.

The production itself still manages to be enjoyable to watch, though. Jeff Lillico as Griffiths delivers a scene-stealing supporting performance; his detailed facial expressions in reaction to the main action on stage are on point and often cracked me up more than the jokes in the writing itself. Michelle Monteith as Mildred is perfectly infuriating, and impressive as she traverses a wide range of emotional states – going from charming to violent to sobs in what are at times nearly instantaneous reversals.

The design of the show is beautiful, and Albert Schultz’s excellent direction brings out the best in a mediocre story. The sound effects in particular are impressive and add nuance and texture to each scene. The cast functions as a kind of chorus in the background, offering noises of chirping birds, of other customers in a coffee shop, and other ambient noise. The visual aesthetic of the show is also interactive, like when different actors stand in for the paintings in Philip’s apartment. The design of the show overall is well-integrated, from the costume design that blends with the set design right down to the shape of the action and the movement of the actors themselves. At one point Mildred collapses, and is lifted onto the shoulders of another actor, forming a strikingly angular image (the play design in general is full of angles) which embodies the support that each of the characters so needs, but does so with a grace that most of the characters in the show never quite achieve.

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