On the surface, The Deep Blue Sea might seem a love triangle, but Helen McCrory’s performance makes it a prism — multifaceted, disorienting, and brilliant – in the National Theatre’s 2016 production of Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play, which is being presented online through July 16.
We first see Hester unconscious on the floor of her flat, having just tried to commit suicide. The neighbors rescuing her call her Mrs. Page. Later, though, she is Lady Collyer, having a civil conversation with her husband William Collyer (Peter Sullivan), a respectable judge – whom she left ten months earlier. She had fallen for Freddie Page (Tom Burke), a pilot in World War II who doesn’t seem to have been doing much since then except drinking, and playing golf. Indeed, he was away playing golf the night before, having forgotten that it was Hester’s birthday – which is the ostensible reason for her suicide attempt.
As painted by the playwright and the performer, Freddie is not exactly a cad. He simply doesn’t feel for Helen what she feels for him. As he tells a friend: “It’s not that I don’t love her. But everything in moderation.”
Her husband William proclaims his love for her and wants her back. But Hester doesn’t see what he’s offering as love either. “I’m just some prized possession who becomes more prized having been stolen.”
If this is a triangle, it’s one with unequal sides.
Wracked by love and trapped by love, McCrory’s Hester is distraught one moment, a gracious hostess the next; a lustful mistress, casually grabbing at her lover’s crotch; like a puppy dog eagerly taking her master’s shoes to polish.
This mercurial character can feel irrational, which was apparently the playwright’s point – he wanted to illustrate “the illogicality of passion.”
But there is more going on in The Deep Blue Sea, if you care to look. The relatively large cast (all terrific) allows Rattigan a subtle dissection of Britain’s class society and their varying attitudes. Hester’s working class landlady is live-and-let-live. Her middle class neighbor, who gives her well-meaning advice to reassert her spiritual side, reminds Hester of her own father, a clergyman who “believed in spiritual values…and the pettiness of the physical side.” Indeed, “The Deep Blue Sea even arguably offers something of a proto-feminist take. Her father, her husband and her lover – the Church, the Law, and the Military — could represent three pillars of society that value respectability over love.
It is bracing to realize that Miller (Nick Fletcher), the character who resuscitates her physically, and then emotionally, in effect lives outside society. He was a doctor, but he did something that got him imprisoned, and caused him to lose his license. We’re not told what, but homosexuality was illegal in Great Britain in 1952; Terence Rattigan was secretly gay; and “The Deep Blue Sea” was reportedly inspired by the suicide of Rattigan’s former lover, apparently because his new lover was not able to reciprocate his affection.
I hasten to emphasize that Rattigan (1911-1977) was a major British dramatist, whose plays continue to be produced – there were Broadway revivals in the last decade of The Winslow Boy starring Roger Rees and Man and Boy starring Frank Langella and Adam Driver; the last revival of The Deep Blue Sea on Broadway was in 1998, starring Blythe Danner. Whatever the real-life origins of Rattigan’s play, the artistry is transforming.