Sometimes an actor and a part make perfect sense, and you know in advance that the production you’re about to see is going to be pretty special. It’s different to the thrill of seeing a favourite or particularly famous actor treading the boards; instead it’s the knowledge that the role will particularly suit the specific skills, experience and style of the performer. The announcement then that Helen McCrory was to play Hester Collyer in Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea made perfect sense and may well be her finest stage performance.
McCrory is probably best known (outside the theatre) for her more outlandish roles playing dangerously eccentric characters such as Narcissa Malfoy in the Harry Potter films, while her Medea for the National a couple of years ago was a ball of anger and vengeance. Yet it was a tiny role as a grieving widow in the film version of Ian McEwen’s Enduring Love, opposite a pre-Bond Daniel Craig, which really highlighted her ability to convey conflicted despair – a performance that made her perfect casting as Rattigan’s deeply troubled heroine.
The Deep Blue Sea is Rattigan’s most personal and emotionally charged play, based on the death of his former lover Kenny Morgan who gassed himself in a tiny boarding house in Camden Town after being thrown over by his current partner. A version of this true story was recently performed at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston which used Rattigan’s play as a template without quite matching the emotional pitch of the fictional version.
The Deep Blue Sea opens with Hester Collyer found alive in her flat by her landlady and a neighbour having failed to kill herself when the meter ran out of gas. It’s the 1950s when suicide was a crime and the discovery puts everyone in a difficult moral position. Hester is troubled by the dying embers of a passionate relationship with her younger lover Freddie Page, a former fighter pilot who she met when golfing with her husband Sir William Collyer, a High Court Judge. A well-meaning lodger calls her husband and in the course of twenty-four hours Hester must confront both the men in her life, the overwhelming feelings of love she cannot control, as well as her own belief that life is not worth continuing.
Hester is a sympathetic but not entirely likeable woman who seems to make quite rational and calm decisions about significant matters while simultaneously unable to overcome the feeling she has for Freddie, a feeling they both know he does not return to the same degree. It can be difficult then for an audience to understand a woman who seems so rational and yet so entirely unable to master her own feelings. Yet McCrory makes Hester’s predicament deeply affecting and entirely believable. She begins in an emotionally turbulent state having just tried to commit suicide and as soon as McCrory appears on stage the tension ramps up instantly. It’s not an easy place for an actress to begin, but McCrory is superb allowing Hester to dismiss her actions with curtly polite thanks to all involved – a constant struggle between the expected propriety of her actions and the unquellable depth of her feelings.
And McCrory’s Hester feels deeply, yet retains an inner steel. We see her as both a fragile creature unable to imagine a life without the strong feeling she has experienced with Freddie – the audience may believe as the other characters do that it is only an infatuation but Hester believes it is more than that – yet when offered an escape by her former husband, she is able to rationalise her decision to give up her life to it. “Love is what happened to me” she says and because of it she is no longer the same woman she was in her marriage to Sir William and quite decently feels she could not pretend to love her husband again for all the material comfort it may bring her. McCrory’s fiery passion for Freddie that so often becomes histrionic as she begs him to stay with her is painful to watch and throughout you have the sense she is a dead woman walking, that without him she will allow herself to crumble. It’s a real tour de force performance that is one of the finest things you’ll see on the London stage this year.
Tom Burke’s Freddie may initially seem to be the villain of the piece who has destroyed this woman’s life for a brief physical passion. Yet Rattigan gives us a far more complex character, loading Freddie’s backstory with notions of a post-war world he cannot exist in – “His life stopped in 1940” Hester says and the dull peace after the intensity of combat is something so many men found difficult to adjust to. The failure of the relationship is no more the fault of Freddie than it is of Hester as both are driven by deep character traits that always doomed their 10-month romance. He openly admits he is not someone who can feel as deeply as Hester can and considers himself broken. Although he cares for her more than any other woman he’s ever known, it doesn’t begin to equal her passion for him which ultimately drives them apart. Tom Burke is a superb Freddie, offering moments of callous disgust for Hester’s selfish suicide attempt that would have left him with a lifetime of guilt, with a level of self-realisation that engenders considerable sympathy. Their mutual passion is clear and the chemistry between the two leads if palpable, yet Freddie refuses to let himself be governed by it as Hester does and is always the one to instantly shut down her caresses which Burke suggests are futile now they both know it’s over. It’s again a powerful performance that retains sympathy for Freddie’s motives despite the pain he causes and we see it costs him a great deal to break it off but knows that logic must rule emotion.
There’s no less tension in the duologues between Hester and her husband which have the easy interaction of two people long involved with one another. Peter Sullivan as Sir William initially remains a little aloof seeming neither surprised nor overly concerned by Hester’s actions but it’s abundantly clear in Sullivan’s heartfelt performance that considerable love still exists for his wife and his distance is a protection against further hurt as well as a badge of his class and age. Their talk of old acquaintances he thinks is a way to lure her back, while for her they’re just amusing memories of a life Hester no longer requires. William represents for her a form of salvation she refuses to take where a return to married life would be a betrayal of herself, of the sexuality she has discovered with Freddie and a life of stifled pretending that she won’t renew.
The National has a great reputation when it comes to Rattigan and a production of After the Dance in 2010 was one its biggest success of the last decade – the lead played by a pre-Sherlock Benedict Cumberbatch in what remains, in my view, his finest stage role. Here director Carrie Cracknell has created a tense and emotionally wrought atmosphere that ebbs and flows like the tide, and perfectly pitched throughout, while Tom Scutt’s beautiful semi-sheer design in shades of sea bluey-green allows you to see the lives happening beyond the walls of Hester’s flat giving context to her own somewhat self-indulgent struggle and the many other people just getting on with it. This is not quite the shabby lodging house of other versions, but a small and tasteful place which reinforces Hester’s slight snobbery – it’s not pure poverty to us but to her is a few degrees below the comfort she enjoyed with Sir William.
This production of The Deep Blue Sea is the best thing the National has done in years and a wonderful piece of theatre – it’s intense, consuming and deeply moving. Helen McCrory’s astonishing central performance is an impeccable piece of casting and a role that suits her skills perfectly. Her Hester is simultaneously sympathetic, pitiable, frustrating, fragile and strong, and if you’re not blinking back the tears by the end of this devastating performance then you have a harder heart than me. Rattigan has been given a new lease of life since the centenary celebrations in 2011 and in this beautiful production we are reminded just why he remains such a wonderful playwright and how sublime theatre can be when a talented actor meets the perfect part.
The Deep Blue Sea is at The National Theatre until 21 September and tickets start at £15. The production also features in the National’s 1pm Friday Rush scheme selling tickets for £20. There will be an NT Live Screening of this production on 1 September in local cinemas.