“My God, how I hate getting tangled up in other people’s emotions.”
For such a enduringly magnificent play and a lead part considered “one of the greatest female roles in contemporary drama”, it’s then a little surprising (and sad) that it has been a good while since we’ve seen a major production of The Deep Blue Sea, especially given the number of Hamlets and Lears we continually get. 2011 saw Maxine Peake and Amanda Root take on Hester in Leeds and Chichester respectively but now, Helen McCrory stakes her claim as one of the finest living British actors in playing the part at the National Theatre.
The production sees her reunite with director Carrie Cracknell after their striking Medea, and their collaboration similarly heightens the blistering emotion of the drama. Terence Rattigan’s story of shattered lives in a shattered post-WWII society drew heavily on his own tumultuous romantic life, homosexual subtext thus coded into the tale of a woman unable to maintain the veneer of respectability to a judge she does not love, instead opting to plunge into the instability of an affair with a troubled former RAF pilot.
McCrory ascends to the part almost celestially, a dead-eyed serenity about her in the recognition of how hopeless she feels, how impossible she considers her situation. A failed suicide bid opens the play and from then on, McCrory gives us a marvellously restrained but still achingly human performance, paradoxically full of the tiny observations of life that she can no longer see, making this a Hester you believe her landlady (a strong Marion Bailey) would call ‘nice’. And even as events conspire against her, pushing her nearly to breaking point again, there’s real strength even in the cracks of her gorgeous voice.
As the men variously circling her, Peter Sullivan’s Lord Collyer succeeds immensely in demonstrating why his marriage to Hester has failed whilst still showing how much he cares for her, Tom Burke’s Freddie roots his callousness in a vein of deep sadness as his pilot tries to extricate himself from this tangled lot and picking up the pieces as fellow tenant Miller, Nick Fletcher is subtly superb in offering a vital lifeline of support, knowing full well that he can’t make Hester take it, simply show her that it is there in the climax of the far stronger second act.
There are moments where the production feels slightly at odds with itself though. Tom Scutt’s detailed set stretches the considerable width of the Lyttelton stage, which works against any real sense of claustrophobia building up in this apparently most spacious of West London bedsits – only in the cramped kitchen does the reality of Hester’s straitened circumstances really hit home visually. And a six-strong ensemble are under-utilised in their barely-there suggestions of the world outside (memories of Men Should Weep’s superlative staging of the same theme in this same theatre didn’t help).
But it is a masterpiece of a play and a beautifully emotional interpretation thereof, which can’t help but make you feel it deeply, as deeply as the deep blue sea.