BWW Reviews: 'Of Human Bondage' Explores Love and Obsession
The book, published to a lukewarm reception in 1915, has since gone on to enjoy widespread appeal for its keen depiction of the search for identity and the darker recesses of love and obsession.
"I think it's very contemporary," explains Winnipeg-born Thiessen. "Everybody's been in a relationship that's gone bad."
The playwright has condensed Maugham's sprawling narrative, and focuses on the fascinating if equally disturbing relationship aspects of Maugham's novel. Philip Carey (played by Soulpepper Academy graduate Gregory Prest), clubfooted and of limited means, struggles between being a doctor and an artist. He meets tea shop girl Mildred (Michelle Monteith), and becomes obsessed with her, despite her treating him badly, turns down more promising relationships with nicer women (including Norah Nesbitt, played by Sarah Wilson), and endures a series of calamities (including financial ruin and flunking out of medical school) before being helped by the kind, Spanish-language enthusiast Athelney (John Jarvis) and his daughter (Courtney Ch'ng Lancaster). Slowly but surely, Philip finds his way back to medical school and looses his chains of "bondage," acknowledging at the play's end that the various "threads" of life (joy, pain, disappointment) contribute to its richness.
Having adapted many works for the stage (including literary classic Wuthering Heights in 2010) and written several original, celebrated works himself (including Vimy, Lenin's Embalmers, and the Governor General Award-winning Einstein's Gift), Thiessen says it's vital to make a work your own throughout the writing process.
"You have to find your way in," he explains, a hint of excitement coloring his voice, "you have to make it your own. And you go, okay, what is of interest to me? How do I see the telling of the story onstage? [...] And, what are the internal conflicts and interpersonal conflicts, and how do they relate to wider society?"
"It's a really hard book to adapt to the stage: it's so big, it's so long, it covers so much time," he says, "and it was very difficult to get the rights, not because somebody was holding them up, but nobody knew where they were! My agent and I spent almost two years trying to track them down. It took us from Scotland to New York City to London. There was a lot of conflicting information as to where the rights for the book were."
Technical challenges aside, a big attraction in adapting Maugham's work was the ease with which his language translates to the stage. "I was struck by how modern it felt," Thiessen recalls, "particularly Maugham's dialogue. He's a playwright, and his words are fresh, earthy, gritty; the dialogue feels very contemporary. While adapting Bronte, you can't put words in actors mouths - they don't feel right on the stage of today - but Maugham's dialogue translates very easily."
Thiessen calls the stage adaptation, directed by Soulpepper's Artistic Director Albert Schultz, "visually as stunning as a painting," though he admits when he adapted the novel, he had no specific ideas of how it should be produced.
"I knew early on, where he was going with the visual aspects of the play, and... what kind of sound we wanted to play with," he recalls. "I was aware where Albert was going, and I approved it, and a discussion that happened, but I wasn't there for it, I was in New York City" -Thiessen lives there with his wife, novelist Susie Moloney - "and it was a real surprise when I came back. A delightful surprise."
Indeed, Of Human Bondage is an intensely creative production, full of poetry that manifests itself in a beautiful, memorable marriage of theatrical elements. Live music and foley, as well as striking visual configurations (including shadow work and striking red lights) highlight Philip's emotional states, his tumultuous relationship with the fickle Mildred, and the wider theme of identity. Set and lighting designer Lorenzo Savoini and composer and sound designer Mike Ross (both Soulpepper Academy graduates) have created a masterful, wonderfully theatrical melange that allows for rich emotional subtext. The opening scene in Of Human Bondage, for instance, is striking in its visual and sonic poetry, showing Philip's medical student colleagues wielding would-be saws that are actually bows each uses to strum a different string on a prostrate cello. With shadows projected on the wall and the drone of deep strings, we see Philip's figure caught in the middle, being 'played' and 'sawed,' himself the instrument, patient, artist and healer. Never has the marriage between art and science been more dramatically (and beautifully) rendered.
Thiessen has high words of praise for Soulpepper. "They're a unique company... they do work like no other English-speaking company in Canada," he says plainly. "They should be known even more so outside the province, and the country."
As to hopes of life beyond Toronto for the play, Thiessen is crossing fingers. "I would love to see this particular show tour," he says firmly. "I don't know if that'll happen - that's a dream of mine." So far companies from Ireland, Australia, and the U.S. have been invited to see the show. "If they do their own production, great, but I'd love to see the play have a long life, and this production having a longer life."
The work's themes, he says, are timeless. "No matter who you are in this world, you're going to be in bondage to something, whether it's chocolate or red wine or bad relationships... sex, drugs, rock and roll! We all have a fascination, and an obsession."
Photo credits: Top photo, Gregory Prest and Michelle Monteith; bottom photo, Oliver Dennis and Gregory Prest.
All photos by Cylla von Tiedemann