The Deep Blue Sea is a wonderful play by Terence Rattigan, with a wonderful lead role for a woman. Helen McCrory is a wonderful actor who takes full advantage of the opportunities the part offers in a splendid production that I saw during a visit to London at its National Theatre.
The accomplished production, directed by Carrie Cracknell, will be the next offering in the National Theatre Live series, affording audiences on this side of the pond the opportunity to see this terrific production broadcast internationally starting September 1st. Shakespeare Theatre presents it here October 24.
I read the play decades ago, but had never seen it staged, nor had I seen either film version. The first movie, starring Vivien Leigh and Kenneth More, came out in 1955, three years after the play debuted in London, with a cast led by Peggy Ashcroft and More. A remake came out in 2011, with Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston.
Rattigan’s stock as a writer has diminished since his heyday in the middle of the last century. (He still holds a record, being the only writer to have had two plays whose runs exceeded more than 1,000 performances in London.)
Rattigan’s work, along with that of Noël Coward, represented the kind of successful, “well-made” play, focusing on middle- and upper-class characters, against which the “angry young men” or “kitchen sink” next generation of British writers rebelled.
However, despite the fact that his plays haven’t been entirely forgotten — The Winslow Boy played Broadway a couple years ago, and Washington Stage Guild recently revived In Praise of Love — Rattigan never became an adjective, as Coward did, and, like Maxwell Anderson in this country, his prominence doesn’t seem to have survived his life fully intact.
My companion last week, though, surprised me with her high regard for Rattigan going in, and, after seeing the play, I understand why.
I won’t need to post a spoiler alert before writing that the play deals with a woman confronting depression and despair. After all, the play opens with her sprawled on the floor with her head in the oven, as her neighbors discover an unsuccessful suicide attempt.
Very early on, we discover that Hester Collyer, the aspiring suicide, has left her husband Sir William, a judge, and their upper-middle class life together, to live in much less comfortable circumstances with Freddie Page, a former test pilot. Indeed, the common-law couple’s existence is a struggle. The current rent has yet to be paid.
Plays that involve suicide or depression can sometimes seem facile. Excellent productions of ’Night, Mother on Broadway and Next to Normal at The Keegan Theatre, for instance, and Pulitzers notwithstanding, didn’t endear either of those scripts to me.
In Cracknell’s and McCrory’s hands, however, the treatment in this play feels as deep as the titular blue sea. The thought even occurred to me, cheekily, that I was watching the very first Sarah Kane play.
Actually, it’s as much a play about passion as it is about suicide, the kind of passion that makes you do things that surprise everyone around you; that surprise you; that turn your world upside-down.
Three years before the play debuted, Rattigan’s lover had left him for another man. It isn’t much of a leap to think that Rattigan was projecting his own despair over that abandonment onto Hester when he drew the character. Both are coping with the awareness that (s)he cares much more deeply for the object of desire than the object does in return.
The great accomplishment of both the play and this production is that it nearly never feels as if the play is dated. I felt as if I could be watching a play with a period setting that had been written recently.
Granted, I expect that this production has found more moments to underscore effectively the physical bond between Hester and her fly-boy than earlier versions may have. Those moments (along with the use of period music, most prominently The Flamingos’ version of “I Only Have Eyes For You”) undoubtedly account in no small part for the play feeling so current. Earlier productions were likely less sensual, talkier affairs.
McCrory and Cracknell give Hester fascinating dimension. She is demonstrably intelligent, proud, well-mannered, self-aware, and strong, characteristics which make her vulnerability and desperation all the more poignant and relatable.
To illustrate the strength of the performance (I won’t spoil things by describing the circumstances), a phone call Hester makes in the middle of the second half will rank in my memory among the finest sequences I have ever seen, and I look forward to revisiting that scene on tape.
I must admit that I hadn’t been aware of McCrory before this, although my companion described her as the finest actress of her generation working in London. (McCrory is approaching 50, according to her Wikipedia entry.) It turns out that I had seen her as Cherie Blair in The Queen; others will remember her from Harry Potter films, in which she played Narcissa Malfoy. (Off-stage, she is married to Damian Lewis, the ginger Brit from Homeland.) Her most recent stage role at the National was the title part in Medea; that was also filmed for the National Theatre Live series.
McCrory’s interactions with her estranged husband are lovely. Instead of falling into the trap of presenting a straw man — dull, sexless, easy to leave — Cracknell casts Peter Sullivan, who gives ballast to that side of the triangle. As they talk about the friends — and the life — that Hester has left behind, it becomes clear that it is he with whom she has more in common, except for that one overwhelming aspect that pulls her instead to Freddie.
Freddie is played by Tom Burke, and his was the least satisfying performance of the evening, as far as I was concerned. The character is interesting because he is invested in the relationship — just not to the degree that Hester is. As Freddie grapples with his dilemma, I wish Burke had been working through the competing impulses more in the moment, and had let us see a different Freddie who interacts with Hester than the Freddie who is alone with his friend Jackie (Adetomiwa Edun).
The rest of the cast is terrific: Marion Bailey as Mrs Elton, the landlady (Mike Leigh fans will recall her memorable turn in Mr Turner); Hubert Burton and Yolanda Kettle as a couple who live upstairs (the husband in particular gets tangled up in the downstairs drama); Nick Fletcher as Mr Miller, a disgraced doctor, and what a lovely role that is; what a lovely scene he shares with Hester toward the end of the play. (The play, written in three acts, is performed here with one intermission, after Rattigan’s Act Two, which makes the first half before intermission lopsidedly long.)
If you’ve ever been in a situation where you’ve felt almost uncontrollably compelled to pursue someone, although you understand that a lasting relationship is ridiculously implausible; when you’ve known that the intensity of the attraction is not reciprocal; and when you’ve realized that the infatuation is for someone who, on levels other than the physical (such as the intellectual) is not well-matched to you — well, this play and this production will likely speak to you as deeply as that formidable blue sea.