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The Deep Dark Depths of the Heart

The Deep Blue Sea
by Terence Rattigan
directed by Carrie Cracknell
National Theatre

Hester Collyer, the central character in Terence Rattigan’s 1952 classic, has more than just a hint of Mrs. Dalloway about her. Hester is slowly revealed to us through the events that unfold over one single day, as Clarissa Dalloway is in Virginia Woolf’s novel. Both women keep themselves tightly composed; both concerned with how they appear to others and weighed down with expectation. Both are discontent, yearning for something deeper and more meaningful in their lives. However, where Clarissa Dalloway dwells on the excitement of her past and what could have been, Hester seizes the opportunity for the passion that she desperately desires. She leaves her safe and secure marriage to Lord Collyer, and goes to live a less comfortable, yet more thrilling life with ex-RAF pilot Freddy Page. However, he doesn’t give Hester exactly what she wants either. The play opens with Hester being roused from a suicide attempt.


Rattigan, like Woolf, is a master of the slow build. But unlike Woolf he cannot explore the inner experiences of his characters on the page – we can only know what we see on the stage. Even so, Hester’s conflict between internal turmoil and external poise is represented astonishingly well. Every line crackles with meaning and hints at a vast emotional landscape bubbling beneath the surface. Carrie Cracknell’s subtle and astute direction makes the most of this. Nothing is rushed over. Each moment of the play is savoured.


Helen McCrory is phenomenal as Hester. She drifts about the stage as though in a dream, calm and polite in front of visitors, yet every rogue eye movement, every flick of her wrist betrays Hester’s hidden desperation. Eventually, Hester does break, though it’s only a few brief moments before she is back to being her usual carefully measured self. McCrory takes on the challenge of this complex character with gusto, and gives a mesmerising, precise and wonderfully satisfying performance. 


There are some good supporting performances too: Marion Bailey as a bustling Mrs. Elton and Nick Fletcher as the moody and mysterious Mr. Miller. Tom Burke is compelling as the young, tortured and chaotic Freddy Page, turning to drinking to drown his post-war anguish. Peter Sullivan gives an excellent performance as Lord Collyer, appearing desirably suave and sophisticated. He seems to have everything – except the ability to match Hester emotionally. The difficulty of Hester’s choice is clear to us: she took a punt and chose passion over stability and security, but ended up with nothing.


Tom Scutt’s design is, much like the rest of the production, understated and clever. Most of the action takes place in a realistic period lounge (Hester and Freddy’s flat) which is sat within a larger, open doll’s house-type structure. This has a functional purpose – situating their home in the larger house which is also occupied by Mrs. Elton and the other tenants – but it also becomes an extension of Hester herself. The bleakness of her mind seeps out and swallows her surroundings. As the fabrics flutter, we can tell that the other rooms are empty, abandoned. The house looms behind Hester like a dark monster. The curtains are blue, like the deep sea she would readily plunge herself into. Other characters can be seen occasionally, very briefly, like ghosts. A representation of her fear, perhaps, or her pining for the life she left behind. 


Carrie Cracknell’s layered, beautiful revival shows off Rattigan’s deep understanding of life and the storm of emotions that accompanies it. In particular, his astute understanding of domestic isolation and the suffocating societal pressures of the time is remarkable. At times his world view can be dark, but this production ends with a glimmer of hope. Though happiness seems far off, Hester is a woman who won't give up just yet. She will carry on alone. 


Marni Appleton


photos | ©Richard Hubert Smith

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