The Deep Blue Sea was first performed in 1952, a few years after it was written by the already successful playwright Terence Rattigan. Based largely on Rattigan’s own closeted relationship with actor Kenneth Morgan, and the incidents following their split, The Deep Blue Sea is set in post-war Britain and follows a female protagonist, Hester. She has abandoned her comfortable life as the wife of Judge William Collyer to indulge in a fiery, passionate relationship with unemployed former RAF pilot Freddie Page. Due to the homophobic prejudices of the time, Rattigan replaces the same-sex relationships of his own experience with heterosexual romances. Director Carrie Cracknell’s version currently being staged at the National is a loyal tribute to Rattigan’s work.
Throughout the course of the play, details on the characters are unravelled like clues – each a piece in the puzzle amounting to their current situation. The play opens with Hester (Helen McCrory) passed out on the floor after a failed suicide attempt; it’s an act that is summarised beautifully by Hester in Rattigan’s script: “when you’re between any kind of devil and the deep blue sea, sometimes the deep blue sea seems very enticing.” Despite their passion, Hester knows Page doesn’t love her the way she loves him and has been driven to the edge as a result of this and her own self-hatred. Page (Tom Burke), the former RAF pilot whose life stopped in 1940, is unable to settle after the war. Yet his self-obsessed arrogance – “I hate getting tangled up in other people’s emotions” – and tendency to talk at Hester rather than to her, make him far harder to sympathise with than Collyer (Peter Sullivan), whose solemn protectiveness over his former wife asserts his position as a decent character. Rattigan’s narrative is deeply sympathetic to the complexities of romantic relationships and affairs; subtle hints that Hester hasn’t entirely severed ties with her former life are visible as she pines for the details of Collyer’s dinner party and is keen to catch a glimpse of the luxury car he’s been driving since their separation.
Tom Scutt’s set design is naturalistic and like a giant, half exposed doll’s house. The house is bathed in blue lighting, fitting to the tone of the play, with netted walls allowing us to peer into other rooms of the house occupied by tenants – ensemble members of the cast – who quietly move around them. As well as being visually effective, these thin, semi-transparent walls are metaphorically clever, exposing an outline of what goes on behind closed doors, as well as being fundamental to the plot that sees Mrs Elton’s residents checking on Hester after hearing the goings-on inside her house. The Deep Blue Sea is an excellent study on the placement of props to credibly build suspense, which Chekhov himself would be proud of. When Freddie is directed to Hester’s dressing gown pocket, we know he’ll find the letter; when Freddie slams a shilling onto the kitchen table, we know Hester will later use it on the gas fire.
The tone of Cracknell’s production is relatively low energy and stably at one level throughout; it’s very much a 1950s period piece, shrouding Rattigan’s brilliant script with stiff British accents and stylish 50s attire. This is not to say it isn’t a success or engaging to watch, however, and McCrory is alluring, mysterious and charming as Hester. Her good-natured humour and affectionate interest in both Collyer and Page make her likable and relatable to the audience.
In the final moments of the play, Hester fries an egg on stage – yes, the set is authentic down to the running tap and 50’s gas stove – and this is symbolic of her decision to live, at least for another night. As she rushes to whisk her egg off the hob before it burns, and sits down to eat, a sense of relief floods the auditorium before the lights go down.
The Deep Blue Sea is playing at the National Theatre until 21 September. For more information and tickets, see the National Theatre website. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith.