by Carol Rocamora
Move over, Ibsen. Step aside, Pinter. There’s stiff competition lurking in that treacherous terrain called love.
The Deep Blue Sea, Terence Rattigan’s lacerating 1952 drama about a woman trapped in a self-destructive affair, is now streaming (and steaming) on NT Live. It features Hester Collyer, one of the most powerful female roles in modern drama, played with desperate vulnerability by Helen McCrory.
Set in the gray days following World War II, Hester is found by her neighbors in her spare London flat, having just attempted suicide. The reasons behind her rash act unfold like a gripping suspense story. In a series of intense scenes reminiscent of an Ibsen play, we learn from the kindly landlady Mrs. Elton (Marion Bailey) that Hester had left her husband Sir William Collyer, a High Court judge (Peter Sullivan) to cohabit with her lover, Freddie Page, a former RAF pilot (Tom Burke). Their ten-month relationship is failing, and Hester’s desperate act brings Sir William back to the scene and into a dangerous love triangle.
What makes The Deep Blue Sea so gripping are the compelling characterizations. The characters in this triangle are even more complex than Ibsen’s archetypal ones (for example, in the Tesman/Hedda/Lovberg triangle in Hedda Gabler). At the same time they’re more sympathetic than Pinter’s inscrutable ones (in the Jerry/Emma/Robert triangle in Betrayal).
Onstage for the entire taut two hours is Hester, whose struggle to free herself from this self-destructive relationship is tortured. Hester suffers from a life-threatening case of lack-of-self-worth. The daughter of a clergyman, she is unfilled in marriage – desperate for the kind of passion that her conventional husband seems incapable of offering. She seeks it instead in the arms of the unemployed, unreliable, unstable and alcoholic Freddie. Though Hester hides her vulnerability under a veneer of charm and social ease, her uncontrollable sexual addiction to Freddie leads to humiliation and self-debasement.
Meanwhile, Freddie simply can’t respond with the kind of love and commitment Hester so desperately needs. At the same time, Freddie isn’t the stereotype of a “cad.” He’s honest about his limitations and failings. Similarly, Sir William isn’t the stereotype of the controlling upper-class husband who (like many Ibsen’s characters) fears scandal. Instead, he turns out to be capable of offering the love that Hester is seeking. But too late…
Surprisingly, the most empathetic character is Miller (Nick Fletcher), a German-born doctor and neighbor in the building whom Mrs. Elton calls in to treat Hester after her suicide attempt. It turns out that (like many Ibsen characters) Miller harbors a dark, shameful secret – one that he’s spending the rest of his life trying to overcome. It is Miller’s final gesture of friendship that saves Hester from diving, once again, into that “deep blue sea”, and sends her on the rocky road to recovery and self-worth.
As Freddie, Tom Burke plays his louche character with a convincing combination of arrogance, charm, and insecurity. Peter Sullivan’s Sir William is touching in his flashes of vulnerability and sincere efforts to change. As the lonely Miller, Nick Fletcher offers the play’s finest insights into the essence of love – namely, kindness, not physical passion. (Remember Williams’s Blanche DuBois? “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”)
But ultimately, the play belongs to Hester. McCrory is simply mesmerizing. Floating about the stage in a slip and nightgown like a stunned bird, her fragility and sexual hunger are reminiscent of Blanche’s (A Streetcar Named Desire was written only five years earlier). In this deeply wounded state, her struggle to survive is all the more heroic. McCrory excels at playing fierce, complex characters – witness her recent “Medea” at the Almeida Theatre, or “Polly” in the TV series Peaky Blinders. As Hester, she is tackling her most complex role yet.
The impressive cast is helmed by Carrie Cracknell, a director of sensitivity and shrewdness. On Tom Scutt’s shadowy set, featuring several levels of an apartment building, unidentified figures wander aimlessly through the darkened rooms. A sense of loss, loneliness and uncertainty, reflecting the post-war era, permeates these gray shadows. It’s the ideal setting for Dr. Miller’s offer of support. “What is so hard about facing life?” he asks Hester. “If you can live without hope, you can live without despair. The only purpose in life is to live it.”
The Deep Blue Sea, by Terrence Rattigan, a Royal National Theatre production (2016) directed by Carrie Cracknell, now streaming on NT Live through July 16 – 2 hrs, 5 min. w/short interval