Playing at the National until Wednesday 21 September
Carrie Cracknell’s new production of Terence Rattigan’s play The Deep Blue Sea is the best thing I’ve seen at the National this year. And not just because I was sitting a couple rows from the front, seats down from a fellow theatre-goer who looked very much like Billie Piper (currently wowing in Yerma at the Young Vic) Thank you £5 entry pass tickets!
I do think though that being so close to the stage, seeing the facial expressions and body language in all of their detail, only intensified the emotion of the performance for me. I was sucked in from the very opening note of the music, as a third floor of a boarding house in Ladbroke Grove, London, is revealed. Through the ghost walls of Tom Scutt’s design we see shadows of neighbours upstairs, making the bed, leaving the house, slamming doors, waiting in doorways. The walls are all duck egg blue with darkening shades of blue. Deepening the watery allusions I feel there is something akin to the sometimes surreal sound of being underwater as the play progresses. The music playing on the record player lends a sense of closed privacy, amidst a sort of deep quiet, like when the loud sound of the rain is shut out as Freddie closes the windows to consult the friend he has invited round for a heart to heart.
Lovers Hester and Freddie are at the heart of the story. If it is a competition for the audience’s affections and allegiance then Helen McCrory as Hester Collyer wins my vote. She is familiar from appearing in 3 of the Harry Potter films as Narcissa Malfoy. When we first meet Hester she is dragged by her neighbours from an unlit gas fire, somewhere between the devil and the deep blue sea (as she explains “when you’re between any kind of devil and the deep blue sea, sometimes the deep blue sea seems very enticing”) Hester has, controversially for 1950s England, escaped marriage with respectable, affluent Lord Collyer and ran away with lover Freddie, played by Tom Burke, recently in the BBC’s War and Peace and announced to play Cormoran Strike in their forthcoming adaptation of the Robert Galbraith novels. Freddie has dark floppy hair, and seems self absorbed in his emotions rather like a child. He was a pilot in the war and drinks whisky like water.
Once rescued Helen McCrory is languid and smoking in her dressing gown, curls of cigarette smoke rising from her sharp edged elegance. She is quietly powerful, mesmerising and memorable delivering a truly stunning and highly emotional performance. The lovers Freddie and Hester seem to be out of their depth, so much is clear from the near tragedy of the opening scene. There is the thrall of passion but not the love Hester yearns for. When we later hear the line describing her relationship with lover Freddie: “You and I are death to each other” we have already seen the evidence of how true these words could be. Freddie starts to flounder. While Freddie is harder to relate to he does struggle to offer a defence of his character – “I’m not a sadist” he whines “I don’t enjoy causing people pain.” Yet is he capable of returning the kind of love Hester gives? When Freddie returns having been for a walk and prepared a speech it is all painfully rehearsed, at odds with the spontaneity you might expect from genuine affection, or at least the product of a person very distant from, and perhaps even unable to handle, emotion. The painfully confused paradox of Freddie’s words – “I don’t love you, not in the way you mean”, yet – “I love you more than I have loved anyone before” – suggests as much. There is a heartbreaking moment as Freddie moves to take his shoes from Hester, who is mid polishing, and who cries out and totters across stage, desperately holding on to the shoe and to Freddie, not finished with either of them. The pain feels incredibly real and so it makes sense to me later to read of Rattigan’s own loss of his lover of ten years Kenny Morgan. Kenny Morgan gassed himself to death in a London bedsit after leaving Terence Rattigan for a younger man, his sexuality seen as a crime to society at that time. Homosexuality is displaced from the lovers’ relationship (given the 1950s context of play’s creation) and is instead seen in the character of Mr Miller and the loss of his profession as a doctor.
Poised between the first scene and the last is the choice between the anonymity and numbing suffocation of the deep blue sea, or life – however mundane and painful it can be – sensation and feeling, at least for today. In the last scene we see Hester using a gas oven, making fried eggs and taking the first bite. Whilst love, or the lack of it, can seem poisonous the ex doctor in the house, Nick Fletcher as Mr Miller, is a steady source of if-at-first-rebuffed help and wisdom. He sees artistic talent, something different to the others, in Hester’s very first painting. Could it be hope? He calls it a flicker, not a great fire, but suggests that the world is a dark enough place to make even a little flicker very welcome. Looking for the flickers in the big black darkness seems like sound advice to me. And it seems fitting that this flicker is found in art, Rattigan’s own choice of medium for voicing his own love lost.