I was lucky enough to see ‘The Deep Blue’ Sea as part of National Theatre at Home during this lockdown. Premiering at the Lyttelton Theatre in 2016 it was added to the National Theatre at Home collection to allow us to fill the void that Covid-19 has created in our love for theatre.
Terrence Rattigan often plants seeds of truth into his work, revolving around his secret relationship with Kenny Morgan. The playwright lived in a very strict world where rules were outmoded, and so his homosexuality was kept hidden from those around him. Many claim that his works are autobiographical as they include so much personal history.
When considering this autobiographical nature of his work, ‘The Deep Blue Sea’ appears all the more real and raw. Directed by Carrie Cracknell, the play is set in a small Ladbroke Grove flat in 1952 and follows our protagonist Hester (Helen McRory) as she battles it out with herself “caught between the devil and the deep blue sea”. The play explores personal mental health in a way which touches on both the good and bad, as we witness Hester try to find her feet in a world which is seemingly crumbling around her.
The play begins in the hours following Hesters failed suicide attempt and the aftermath of this is depicted. The protagonist tries to put together pieces of her life that don’t quite fit together in an attempt to find her worth. She is joined by both acquaintances of unknown neighbours, and intimate relationships with husbands and lovers. They not only add to her confusion but sometimes stand in the way of her realising what’s right for herself due to their differing narratives.
Helen McRory’s portrayal of Hester is what carries this National Theatre production. McRory’s performance is so versatile. She captures Hesters fluctuating personas, the perfect wife one minute then the deranged lover the next. Her actions cause the audience to ask so many questions throughout the performance regarding her intentions. Did she really forget to top up the gas meter? Or is this a symbol of hope? Hester is constantly surrounded by other human beings but feels alone, and McRory superbly illustrates the effects that a deteriorating mental health has on her. She creates a character that is truly believable and one that we as an audience go on a journey with as she tries to find herself.
The play communicates the idea that there are two casualties in a broken relationship, and the desire and pain of Freddie is superbly portrayed by Tom Burke. Rattigan suggests that Freddie is a damaged man, as Burke shows a vulnerable side affected by his time as a pilot in the war. However, Freddie also possesses slightly sly and dangerous elements to him which Burke is excellent at bringing to the stage. We see malicious notes arising as he walks out on Hester and leaves money on the table for her to do what she wants with.
The only character in the play who truly understands Hester and her struggles is Mr Miller, who is played by Nick Fletcher. It is hinted that the doctor was sent to prison due to his homosexuality, which again denotes the playwrights personal history and his relationship with another man being against the rules of the time. Mr Miller is the only person who has felt a similar pain to what Hester feels, and can relate to her having an urge to end it all. Fletcher illustrates a man who has come to terms with what has happened to him and will now dedicate his life to trying to help others who suffer. The play ends with him comforting Hester, explaining to her that her her suffering will never be over unless she writes the conclusion herself.
Pete Sullivan plays Hester’s ex husband, who offers her a better more conservative life which she chooses to reject. He comes across as an attractive figure who appeals to audiences and emphasises Hesters indecisiveness. Marion Bailey makes Hester’s landlady a friendly and compassionate character full of knowledge and wisdom, unfortunately just not understanding of her current pain which makes it frustrating for audiences to watch.
Tom Schutt creates an absolutely stunning set which perfectly compliments the meanings of the play. He creates an illusion that the Ladbroke Grove flats are sinking underwater, using transparent walls to allow figures of other lodgers to be seen roaming the halls. This creates a subtle glimpse into the outside, which Hester never sees as she is trapped by the four walls of her home. The building is empty which paints Hester as a ghost like character. This brilliantly demonstrates a physical manifestation of the protagonists suffering, as she feels as empty and lonely as the building is. The blue washed stage creates a dark and gloomy atmosphere, communicating the image of the Deep Blue Sea in which Hester is floating like a lost soul.
‘The Deep Blue Sea’ is one of Rattigan’s most memorable plays as it explores so many things he was battling at the time of writing. Rattigan’s words alongside Cracknell’s direction pair so well together and show the effectiveness of keeping things simple and focusing on the true meaning of a text. The reality of his words are exactly the reason why his work has stood the test of time, as we still see revivals of his plays today. In a time where the world is struggling through feeling trapped by a pandemic, this performance really hit home.
‘The Deep Blue Sea’ is available on Drama Online (Students online library service).