Writer: Terence Rattigan
Director: Carrie Cracknell
On watching The Deep Blue Sea with a contemporary eye, it’s so tempting to immediately diagnose everybody: Hester Collyer has suicidal depression, Freddie Page shows psychopathic tendencies; even the neighbour Mrs Welch’s mention that she doesn’t like to be alone, even for an evening, seems like a major symptom of something or other. But writer Terence Rattigan ebbs and flows (pardon the pun) between inner emotions and outer reactions, never touching the sides for long enough to explicitly describe what is wrong with these characters. And, strangely enough, it’s this lack of taxonomy that allows Hester to explore the possibility of recovery, of finding the desire to wake up tomorrow.
Hester (Helen McCrory) has left the comfort of her companionate marriage to William Collyer (Peter Sullivan), a high court judge, in favour of Freddie Page (Tom Burke) for whom she feels deep passion but who feels next to nothing for her. She made this trade-off with eyes open, but a year in she finds the inequality of feeling too much to bear.
Written not long after Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, the two plays share a certain flavour, and the characters of both a kind of imprisonment in suspension. Neither remains in the stuffy confines of their upbringing and yet, wherever they’ve run off to, both Blanche and Hester find themselves trapped. The difference though, besides the inevitable doom that consumes all of Williams’ principals, is that where some of Williams’ brilliance is lost in his own poetry, Rattigan presents to us poetry stripped bare. Nothing is merely exposition; everything is both form and content.
Rattigan’s experience as a comic playwright also shines through in unexpected moments. That’s not to say the script is especially funny, but there’s a wryness to the tragedy which gives true depth of character.
Tom Scutt’s design is otherworldly: Mrs Elton’s Ladbroke Grove boarding house swims underwater in a blue-green wash, whilst the outside world’s white light hovers at the windows. Hester’s flat interior is embedded to the exterior skeleton of the building. We see through the thin-skinned walls to the stairwells and flats above, reminding us, as does the script itself, that whilst this is the story of Hester, there are plenty of other stories for which there isn’t time to investigate but which are present nonetheless. One is left desperately curious, for example, about Mr. Miller, once doctor, now bookie, whose story is left tantalisingly unexplored.
Whilst there are multiple references to the time period – attempted suicide is illegal; Freddie was an RAF pilot in the war – it feels thoroughly modern. This is down to the sometimes surprising, but perfectly chosen cast. McCrory embodies Hester’s contradictions intimately: at once fragile and steely; measured and impetuous. Her brilliance shines most bright when she becomes, in a moment, the perfect judge’s wife. We see her brilliant hostess smile, her winning laugh, only to see her crack, revealing an almost entirely different, broken person.
We easily see the appeal of Freddie, and his inability to sufficiently feel, in Burke’s boyish, almost thuggishly carefree swagger. Whilst we might feel a certain sympathy for him with different casting, Burke is ideal in magnifying Hester’s tragedy. Similarly, where in different hands, Collyer might appear pathetic or petty, Sullivan offers a no-nonsense, establishment slickness which keeps the focus on Hester’s choice of love over companionship, rather than questioning whether her marriage was in fact an unhappy one.
Having premiered in 1952, The Deep Blue Sea has lost none of its bite and, in its contradictory urgency and restraint, and in its poetic irreverence, it speaks, beyond a woman’s struggle in the ‘50s, to something eternally true about love and relationships.
Available here until 16 July 2020