‘To Be or Not to Be’ – Contemplations of Mortality in The Deep Blue Sea

Helen McCrory in The Deep Blue Sea (by Richard Hubert Smith)

As the National Theatre streams its wonderful 2016 production of Terrance Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea it is timely to consider what a significant role Hester Collyer is for an actor. In a play framed by the protagonist’s suicide attempts and steeped in the consequences of the Second World War for the surrounding characters, what on one level is a story of soured forbidden love is in essence a discussion of life and death. While it would be excessive to suggest that the role of Hester is equivalent to Shakespeare’s most famous grief-stricken character, there are, nonetheless, overlapping themes with Hamlet that are worth exploring.

For a long time, the wider power of Rattigan’s play was dismissed or at best reduced to a thinly veiled dramatisation of the suicide of his former lover Kenneth Morgan, while it’s central character was considered to be little more than a hysterical woman. And while Rattigan naturally drew on his real experience, The Deep Blue Sea is far more sophisticated than a mere pastiche, bringing an empathetic understanding not just of the liberating and overwhelming emotions that the once sheltered Hester feels for Freddie but of the extremely limited opportunities for women of her class in the early 1950s which seek to further confine her.

While the play is about the destructive nature of passionate infatuation, the shadow of death fills every corner of it. Death haunts this play as surely as it does Hamlet until almost the last moment when 24-hours in Hester’s life comes to its ultimate conclusion. Everywhere she turns the effects of her suicide attempt which opens the play confront her – in meetings with her former husband, with her lover Freddie and with the army of concerned neighbours who pass through the flat to check on her throughout this period – while the long postponed conversations about her deteriorating relationship presage another form of death to come, the nature of which she must choose as the play unfolds.

Hester, like Hamlet, must grapple with circumstances she now feels are beyond her control, that in the space of a few months her everyday life has so altered that continuing it becomes unbearable. As Hamlet faces his father’s death and the too rapid progress of his mother’s second marriage – a change he cannot reconcile – Hester, at the start of The Deep Blue Sea also confronts her demons with a first botched suicide attempt. The new world that both must enter at the start of the play is a merciless one, something has been lost that neither can recover although their striving to do so drives the drama and lends an inevitability to the sense of tragedy. Freddie forgetting her birthday seems trivial but it becomes the trigger for Hester to reconsider her choices before the play begins, symbolising the unsuitability of her relationship and forcing her to recognise that their time together is coming to an end, believing she cannot live without him.

Hamlet’s relationship with his father and Hester’s with Freddie are the most important of their lives and losing them quite suddenly gives both a sense of purposelessness. Hester’s suicide note so callously read aloud by Freddie to his friends (and thereby the audience) is the equivalent of her soliloquy in which she expands on her feelings for him and reasons for taking her own life. That Freddie mocks it says much about his inability to process emotion – something he all but acknowledges – yet it does not detract from an act that in the context of both plays was seen as unchristian and illegal. That Hamlet and Hester consider such drastic action to end their suffering regardless of the consequences for their reputation and presumably for their souls reveals a great deal about the importance of these key relationships in sustaining their sense of self and giving their life purpose.

In other ways, Hamlet and The Deep Blue Sea create a sense of powerlessness in their protagonist through the subtle rendering of the wider setting in which the action takes place. Hamlet is an unthroned prince, an heir apparent whose hereditary right has seemingly been usurped by the one man he finds it hard to challenge. Why and how this happened remains one of the play’s great mysteries but it leaves Hamlet adrift with neither armies, allies or even the moral courage to fight his enemy. These circumstances and the apparent acceptance of the Danish people for King Claudius leave Hamlet powerless to take control of his own life, a spare prince with no meaningful role.

Likewise, Hester’s experience in the play’s 1952 setting is entirely defined by her gender, a woman separated from her respectable husband, living in sin with her younger lover in rented rooms and with little legal or social recourse to protect her interests. As the daughter of a clergyman Hester (unlike the other women in the play) has no experience of work, hoping to make a precarious living as a painter when Freddie leaves, and her class betrayal has left her without friends to rely on in her time of need.

Hester’s status as a soon-to-be-divorced middle-aged woman with a modest income makes her potential future in these circumstances rather bleak but she is all but powerless to change it. Ultimately, all Hamlet and Hester have to claim as their own is life itself; both must examine whether life for its own sake is worth having and how the pain of it can be borne.

Besides the suicidal impulses of the central characters these very different plays also share secondary themes, considering the nature and effects of betrayal, a sense of observation or of being spied upon, and a destructive experience of rejection. Like Hamlet, Hester is frequently betrayed by the characters around her, and before she appears, Mrs Elton (Marion Bailey) has already broken her confidence, revealing her real name and situation to the Welches in an attempt to help in the panicked aftermath of her suicide attempt, but delivered with the gossipy fervour of a secret surreptitiously shared.

Soon, Mrs Welch (Yolander Kettle) is keen to read her suicide note, stopped only by her better-behaved husband (Hubert Burton), while Sir William Collyer (Peter Sullivan) returns on the pretext of concern but really with the intention of reclaiming the wife he needs for society parties and status – a betrayal of Hester’s own emotional position. Freddie, of course, betrays her most notably, acknowledging early-on his inability to love with the expressive intensity that Hester experiences. This mocks the ten month relationship for which she has sacrificed everything from marriage and comfort to dignity and ease of heart. That Hester is watched, managed and listened to as completely as Hamlet is pointed, as external circumstances affect and shape the growing desperation of their inner lives.

But death exists inescapably for other characters in The Deep Blue Sea as well, and Freddie in particularly is deeply affected even haunted by his experience as a pilot in the Second World War. His life “stopped in 1940” Hester explains and this National Theatre at Home screening of the play premiered on the eve of the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain which began on 10 July 1940. Freddie is far more than a callous brute and, clearly traumatised by his experience, loses his nerve as a test pilot bringing the couple back from Canada to deal with the restrictions of 1950s Britain.

To have faced death so openly each day and in a way none of the other characters can claim to, Freddie’s inability to feel anything as intensely in the subsequent years is understandable and pitiable. His anger at Hester’s seemingly casual approach to death as an escape from her overwhelming emotions rather than a state to be feared and respected in the light of the sacrifices of others is essential to comprehending his reactions to her throughout the play. And perhaps more than Hester herself Freddie is a character who lives with and understands death completely, knowing – as good Mr Miller (Nick Fletcher) advises – that the only thing to do is get up the next day and go on living.

And death lingers elsewhere in this play as we presume that Mr Elton, the landlady’s husband, lays slowly dying in another room unable to recover from some unexplained illness. Mr Miller, too, we learn has lost his medical licence to practice for which several potential reasons arise. It may have been the result of some misdemeanor for which he has served time in prison, if not sexual misconduct then presumably his crime resulted in the death of a patient or he could be a refugee from Europe, displaced by the Holocaust, an experience of death far more significant that a single suicide attempt in a drab London flat. Even Sir William presides over life and death as a judge who, in 1952, would still have had the power to sentence a guilty man to capital punishment. The life he offers Hester also brings with it a metaphorical death, suffocating her with social duties, keeping up appearances and dull rounds of obligation, but the Judge represents a physical experience of death as readily as the other characters around Hester, each in their way creating a context in which mortality decisions are a regular feature of their lives.

Helen McCrory and Tom Burke rightly received wide acclaim for their interpretations of Hester and Freddie, but the write-ups of Carrie Cracknell’s intensely atmospheric production focused almost exclusively on the love story and the deeply-felt expression of emotion. But Rattigan’s play is also about determining whether life is worth having, and how to make it bearable day-to-day. Cracknell and designer Tom Scutt have clearly understood this too and use the semi-transparent walls to show all the different experiences of the building’s inhabitants, a range of people and modes of living on show, each one of them wondering every day if it is worth going on.

McCrory’s Hester is almost somnabulistic, gliding through the play as though she no longer exists, making the audience ever aware that she will try again and again – the finality of her confrontation with Freddie merely expedites something she has already chosen, the pain of her existence exploding before us. The ebullience of Burke’s Freddie conceals acres of experience, his placidity and detachment aggrevating to Hester because he can never be provoked to feel for her as much as he once did for the comrades he lost.

“We’re death to each other you and I” he tells her and Rattigan’s glorious play makes you believe it. Death haunts every corner of The Deep Blue Sea not just as the tragic representation of the writer’s own experience of loss but in the evocation of mid-century lives so meaningfully understood, created and rendered. This group of lost souls, existing between two different states, not dead but not fully alive are ordinary and tragic, and in them Hester finds unexpected salvation as Rattigan chooses to dash our expectations. Like Shakespeare’s greatest play, The Deep Blue Sea is grief channelled into art, aligning Hamlet and Hester as two souls enveloped by death and choosing whether to live.

The Deep Blue Sea is streaming via National Theatre at Home until 16 July. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

About Maryam Philpott

This blog takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of cultural activities in London, primarily covering theatre, but also exhibitions and film events. Since 2014, I have written for The Reviews Hub as part of the London theatre critic team, professionally reviewing over 800 shows in that time. The Reviews Hub was established in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

4 responses to “‘To Be or Not to Be’ – Contemplations of Mortality in The Deep Blue Sea

  • theditheringdilettante

    This is such a thought-provoking and insightful analysis. I just reviewed this for my own blog and thought it was fantastic, but reading this shed even more light on why this play is so compelling and profound.

    • Maryam Philpott

      Thanks so much for both of your comments. Rattigan is such an expressive writer, particularly for women, and this production brought those elements of writing, performance, direction and design together so completely that it just filled the Lyttleton stage. But watching it again on screen it did make me think more about death rather than love as the real driver. I really enjoyed your piece, especially the note about Hester’s similarities to Blanche Dubois and am now following your blog too. Looking forward to reading more.

  • theditheringdilettante

    Thank you for your kind words about my review. Yes, I couldn’t help but see so many similarities to ‘Streetcar’: relying on the kindness of strangers, a woman who goes against what society expects of her, relationships based purely off sexual desire, and madness. I also really enjoyed your comparison with Hamlet. Thank you for following and I look forward to reading more from you too.

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