When Terence Davies directed his much-anticipated but ultimately disappointing film adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play The Deep Blue Sea in 2011, he commented that he cast Rachel Weisz in the role of Hester Collyer because there was simply no other British actress whom he could imagine playing the part. As it turned out, Weisz seemed too young and a little bit lightweight in this particular role, leading some of us to speculate who might have proved a better choice. For me, one immediate candidate suggested herself: Helen McCrory, an actress whose superb body of work encompasses classical and contemporary drama, TV, film and stage.
McCrory now gets her chance to play Hester in Carrie Cracknell’s major revival of The Deep Blue Sea at the National Theatre. It’s not the first time that McCrory and Cracknell have collaborated: the pair delivered a stellar contemporary reworking of Medea at the NT two years ago. Their re-teaming on Rattigan’s text is more conventional, but none the worse for that, for the result is a beautiful, sensitive and measured production of one of the greatest, most emblematic pieces of 20th century British drama.
Since Karel Reisz’s Penelope Wilton-starring 1993 Almeida production revived interest in the play (and in Rattigan’s then-underrated drama more broadly) The Deep Blue Sea has established itself as Rattigan’s masterpiece, a work that insightfully explores the complexities of love through the experiences of a middle-class woman who, having left her husband for a younger man, attempts suicide as the new relationship sours. For all the drama’s intimacy – it unfolds entirely in the sitting room of Hester and Freddie’s shabby boarding house flat – the piece has its wider resonances. Indeed, Dan Rebellato, in his Introduction to the Nick Hern edition of the play, argues for The Deep Blue Sea as “a much broader, more social play, concerned with the pain suffered by those caught between their desires and a society which will not tolerate them” (xxi). (Mike Poulton’s new play, Kenny Morgan, currently at the Arcola Theatre, probes the real-life events that inspired the drama, one of several recent plays that have used - or exploited - elements of Rattigan’s biography for dramatic purposes.)
Cracknell’s production attempts to give a sense of that wider social context, and of other lives unfolding around Hester’s. The ambient transition between Acts 1 and 2 (the production’s most self-conscious, dissonant moment) offers a glimpse into some of the other flats in the building. These elements feel a little half-baked, though, and could have been taken further; the large ensemble cast seems somewhat squandered. In addition, although Rattigan’s stage directions specify that the action takes place in “a big room”, designer Tom Scutt arguably overdoes it here with a spacious set, lit in melancholy, vaguely aquatic tones by Guy Hoare, that doesn’t quite help to convey the claustrophobia and entrapment of Hester’s predicament.
|Helen McCrory in The Deep Blue Sea (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)|
McCrory’s performance conveys it, though. Her illuminating interpretation captures the character's clear-eyed assessment of her situation, her sexual passion for Freddie, and her deep despair. A calm surface conveying hidden depths, McCrory’s fiercely intelligent, economical delivery matches perfectly the beautiful restraint of Rattigan’s writing (listen to the casual way she inflects “Just my love” when asked if she has a message for Freddie). It also allows moments of heightened desperation to really resonate. Alongside some of the structural shifts and weak additions that messed with the dramatic tension of the material, part of the problem with Davies’s film version was that Weisz’s Hester seemed so much younger than her husband William (as played by Simon Russell Beale) that the transgressiveness of the character’s absconding with a younger man was considerably diminished. This isn’t a mistake that this production makes. Moreover, McCrory goes beyond the individual character to create an archetypal figure here: something similar to what Pedro Almodóvar, in his remarks about Cocteau’s La Voix Humaine, described as “a woman sitting next to a suitcaseful of memories, waiting miserably for a phone call from the man she loves” (Almodóvar on Almodóvar, p.80).
Though adept at indicating the way in which the character's frustrations at the direction of his life lead to his callous treatment of Hester, Tom Burke, as Freddie, might do more to suggest the charm and charisma that made Hester fall for him. The other performances are extremely well judged, however. McCrory’s scenes with Peter Sullivan, as the cuckolded William, are especially good, with awkwardness giving way to tenderness as the pair fall into reminiscence about their shared past.
The boarding house characters - variously offering moralistic judgement, advice, and practical help - are also vividly drawn. Yolanda Kettle and Hubert Burton are funny and touching as the well-meaning Welches, and Marion Bailey brings to the production the kind of wonderful naturalness she brought to another landlady character, Mrs. Booth, in Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner (2014). (This production is particularly good at suggesting a complicity between its three very different female characters.) As the mysterious Mr. Miller, Nick Fletcher hits just the right note of shrewd detachment and compassionate concern. Fletcher’s wrenching final scene with McCrory beautifully brings out the still-potent poignancy and wisdom of Rattigan’s humane vision, in which a lover may prove lethal but a near-stranger might be a saviour, in the end.
The Deep Blue Sea is booking at the National Theatre until 21 September.
Reviewed for PopMatters.