Helen McCrory’s Hester leads the National Theatre’s The Deep Blue Sea through calm and tempest. She is reunited with director Carrie Cracknell following Medea, also at the National Theatre, in 2013. Hester has left a successful husband who still proposes to love her, for a man who will never give her everything she desires. Terrence Rattigan’s play is not just, though, a story of her two lives with two men – one young, present and impulsive; one proper, past and resolute. She is a woman caught in the entrapments of her time.
Tom Scutt’s set is a cross-section of a bluely lit London town house. Hester’s shabby but elegant rooms fill downstage. A white staircase and other tenants’ rooms are visible behind. The simple frame structure is exposed with the changes in light and the turquoise gauze, drawn taut to make walls, looks fragile enough to puncture. Like Hester. It’s like peering into a doll’s house submerged beneath the sea; we see life in miniature and at its most desperate.
The translucency reveals the movements of Hester’s neighbours. The dry yet kindly Mr Harris is elusive upstairs. Mrs Elton attends her duties as landlady, chief of which is to gossip. Predictable Mr and Mrs Welsh do good together and she’s pregnant. It symbolises everything Hester has forgone: hope, decorum, the future. In a stormy interlude between scenes, spot lights from lamps are used to highlight, one by one, the people of the house. Life for them goes on.
Fleeting versions of Hester pass through the play. I want to picture each one – each ephemeral ghostly stance as she stands staring into the city caught in light from the window – each boldly glamorous entrance in a skirted coat – each frail and quiet moment in time collapsed on her kitchen floor. McCrory captures all this brokenness into one character: a woman in mid-century London whose choices in life are almost fatally limited, cast adrift from her self.
Hester is at one time a pallid and frail counterpart to Freddie (Tom Burke). Their mutual attraction is palpable but their love cruelly unequal. Colour and brash youth arrive with his noisy entrance from the golf club though, as a pilot, Freddie’s life ended in 1940. This production finds a sympathetic heart to his character. There is no one here to easily blame.
At her most vulnerable, McCrory plays Hester as a woman grieving, from whom all hope has drained. Beneath, though, is a steely reserve and commitment to her decisions. Humour comes from her polite dealings with busybody neighbours. “Why ever would she do a thing like that?” Mr Elton mansplains her issues with incredulous lack of tact. He means well.
Miller does well. With blunt realism he tells her that beyond hope, there is life. But it is up to her to find it. McCrory has called their production “irreverent”. I’m not so sure – I found reverie and respect, hurt and pining, and pin-pointed elegance in The Deep Blue Sea. But she’s right if she means there hasn’t been Rattigan on stage like it.
Photos: Richard Hubbert Smith