Arts & Entertainment
2 min

Of Human Bondage, onstage

Soulpepper stages world premiere of W Somerset Maugham masterpiece

Gregory Prest and Michelle Monteith rehearse Soulpepper’s new production of Of Human Bondage. Credit: Nathan Kelly

There’s an episode of Buffy in which a UC Sunnydale student asks the titular heroine if she’s read W Somerset Maugham’s classic novel Of Human Bondage, to which she replies, “Oh, I’m not really into porn.” It’s a cute (if corny) joke, but there are a lot of people out there who think the bildungsroman about a moody Brit with a clubfoot is strictly for the whips-and-chains set. Actor Gregory Prest, currently in rehearsal as protagonist Philip Carey in Soulpepper’s upcoming stage adaptation, is quick to remind us that audiences expecting SM-style bondage are going to be 50 shades of disappointed.

That isn’t to say things don’t get freaky on an emotional level. “It’s so fucked up what happens between these two people,” says Prest of Philip and Mildred Rogers, played by Michelle Monteith. “I think quite a few of us know what it’s like to have these horrible relationships, with all the signs of people not wanting you, people treating you like shit, but you can’t get enough of it. And it’s sort of that bondage of putting yourself in someone’s power and enjoying being there, because you think perhaps that’s what life should be or because it gets you off and that’s exciting.”

While there have been several film adaptations of Of Human Bondage, a stage adaptation has never before been attempted, and Soulpepper’s production will mark the world premiere of writer Vern Thiessen’s script. “What I really, really like about it is that he’s actually taken quite a few liberties,” Prest says. “Because the book is the best it’s going to be. We’re not going to make something that’s better than the book in terms of that story in that medium, because it’s impossible.” While Thiessen’s script both combines and creates new characters, director Albert Schultz has broken from convention by having all 11 actors onstage for the duration of the show, playing multiple characters and creating a soundscape as foley artists. “It’s a way to break free from the bondage of the novel,” as Prest wryly puts it.

Although he married a woman, Maugham was known to have had homosexual relationships. And while queer sexuality is not something that Of Human Bondage explores explicitly, many readers find queer subtext in the novel, which is something Thiessen’s script doesn’t shy away from. “He’s created gay relationships in the play with characters who aren’t gay in the novel,” Prest explains. “Because there are hints of that — the novel is laced with it. So, it’s only right that the play should be like that.” Certainly, gay audiences have long identified with stories about secret longings and impossible love affairs, which they are sure to find in Of Human Bondage. “As a gay actor, there’s nothing in this play, there’s nothing in these relationships that I haven’t experienced in gay relationships. And I’m sure that has to be because Somerset Maugham was who he was."