Tag Archives: Helen McCrory

‘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


Review of the Year and What to See in 2017

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Very few of us will be sorry to see the back of 2016, politically and socially it’s been a tough year all round. But it hasn’t been all bad with London’s cultural output thriving in uncertain times and at the start of 2016 there was much to anticipate. While 2015 theatre was all about five big male performance, 2016 was a time for some of our leading female actors to take to the stage with powerful productions of The Deep Blue Sea at the National Theatre with Helen McCrory on devastating form as Rattigan’s desperate heroine, while The Young Vic’s Yerma cemented Billie Piper’s growing status as a very fine stage performer, and closing the year, The National’s innovative Hedda Gabler with a brutally savage turn from Ruth Wilson as the suffocated society wife.

Some other good but not perfect productions also heralded some noteworthy for roles for Gemma Chang in Jamie Lloyd’s exciting take on Pinter’s The Homecoming, for Juliette Stevenson and Lia Williams in Mary Stuart (review to follow next week), Sharon D Clarke in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Amber Riley in Dreamgirls. Not to be outdone notable male performances including Ralph Fiennes in The Master Builder which was one of his finest ever stage roles, shamefully overlooked by the Olivier committee, as well as the lead in a notable Richard III at the Almeida. Later in the year Kenneth Branagh defied comparisons to deliver a moving and powerful interpretation of The Entertainer while Ken Stott and Reece Shearsmith found new depth in The Dresser, not forgetting Kit Harrington cavorting about in his pants and making a decent job of the leading role in Jamie Lloyd’s controversial but resonant Faustus. But my favourite was Mark Strong’s incredible performance in The Red Barn which earned a first professional five-star review from me.

For theatre 2017 is already promising a host of hotly anticipated male roles and having opened 2016 with another chance to see his magnificent Richard II at the Barbican, David Tennant returns to the Wyndhams stage in March for Patrick Marber’s contemporary adaptation of Don Juan in Soho which promises a great deal. Also in March Daniel Radcliffe returns to London in an Old Vic production of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead while in April star-director Ivo van Hove’s version of Obsession opens at the Barbican with film-star Jude Law. The National also revives its production of Angels in America with Russell Tovey which will be one of the big openers in 2017.  But the show to watch next year is a hotly anticipated version of Hamlet at the Almeida which opens in late February staring Andrew Scott, Juliet Stevenson, Jessica Brown Findlay and rising star Luke Thompson. Comparisons with Sherlock co-star Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet are inevitable but the Almeida is a much smaller space and Robert Icke’s vision may yet surprise us.

Art and exhibitions have noted a major change in presentation and style since the 2015 Alexander McQueen show which really altered the way items are presented. Utilising the success of this the V&A called on their design experience to present a lively examination of 60s popular and political culture in Records and Rebels which you can still see a little while longer. In a similar vein Vogue celebrated its 100th birthday with an excellent exhibition of its fashion photography which emphasised its role in reflecting the changing world around the magazine, while the Barbicans show about The Vulgar collected some excellent exhibits but misused them in over-intellectualised structure. And Somerset House celebrated fan-art inspired by the weird and wonderful world of Kubrick films.

From July the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme offered two of London’s most successful shows focused on very different aspects of conflict. The Science Museum’s Wounded: Conflict, Casualties and Care was an eye-opening and well researched examination of a little known aspect of the First Wold War, while the Imperial War Museum comes very close to show of the year with its excellent Real to Reel exhibition on war movies. That accolade actually goes to the Royal Academy for its Painting the Modern Garden show which collated so many beautiful paintings that wandering from crowded room to crowded room was never less than a joy.

Looking ahead and the headline show for 2017 is the Tate’s David Hockney retrospective from February which is set to unite his UK and US work for the first time. After a stunning 2012 show at the Royal Academy, a proper examination of Hockney’s work is long overdue and this is sure to be a big hit for Tate Britain after their disappointing Paul Nash and Empire shows. This will be followed by a show on the impressionists in London from November.

Meanwhile other American art comes into focus with big shows on post-1930s art at the Royal Academy from February and Pop Art and the American Dream at the British Museum from March. In February Kensington Palace opens a guaranteed money-spinning crowd-pleaser with a showcase of Princess Diana’s dresses set to run for two years, while at the tail end of next year the Queen’s Gallery launches its examination of Charles II’s art.

London’s 2016 Film Festival was once again lived up to anticipation and seems to be going from strength to strength. As well as the Amy Adams double bill of linguistic sci-fi adventure Arrival and Tom Ford’s stylishly dark morality tale Nocturnal Animals which have already opened in the UK as well as Andrea Arnold’s superb American Honey, the Film Festival also showcased a number of significant films due to open here in the early part of 2017. Best among and them already earning countless award nominations is Damien Chazelle’s La La Land which is in cinemas from 13 January and is an exceptional clash of the classic Hollywood musical and modern grittier experiences of trying to make it in LA. It is beautifully realised and its stars, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, have never been better.

Out in the same week is Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea (review to follow shortly), a sensitive portrayal of grief and guilt with its stars Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams certain to dominate the acting honours in February. Although full release dates are not yet announced theatre director Benedict Andrews’s adaptation of David Harrower’s play Blackbird, now retitled Una and starring Rooney Mara deals with the difficult issue of abuse and its consequences. Although the film’s approach does undermine its purpose to a degree it will create talking points on release, and a review will follow when that date is announced. Finally Adam Smith’s first film Trespass Against Us, starring Brendan Gleeson and Michael Fassbender is scheduled for 3 March, with both playing members of a Gloucestershire traveller community, replete with local accents, who account for much of the local crime rate. Premiering at the Film Festival, it offers some impressive low-budget car chases and great black comedy moments, as well as fine performances from its top-notch cast.

So as we swiftly kick 2016 away it may not have been a great year but it has offered a number of cultural highs. With plenty of potentially excellent theatre, exhibitions and films in the works, there’s much to look forward to in the year ahead.

Reviews are posted every Monday at 12.30pm.Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.


The Deep Blue Sea – National Theatre

The Deep Blue Sea - National Theatre

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.


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