The National Theatre’s production of Terrence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea is an emotionally overwhelming and thought-provoking play. Set in London during the 1950s, it follows the love triangle of Hester Collyer, her husband Lord Collyer and boyish war hero, her ‘darling Freddie’. On the surface, the play follows the turmoil of a toxic relationship between Freddie and Hester, the first scene opens with a botched suicide attempt. However, the play is far more subtle and profound than this first impression. It explores mental illness and the inadequacy of language in communicating the diverse nature of human experience.
Throughout the play the audience is embroiled in Hester’s rising paranoia and ‘shame at being alive’. We play the voyeur, looking into a block of flats to see the other tenants in their rooms or visiting Hester, the archetypal adulterous woman. The set is extremely effective in capturing the proximity of neighbours as they create an atmosphere of judgement and intrusion, at the same time it emphasises the complete seclusion of Hester. Left alone, her crumpled figure is a diminutive and pathetic presence on the expansive stage.
Amidst this sobering material, welcome comic relief is provided by many of the secondary characters who bumble around their daily lives. Some though, are slightly forced. The Welchs in the flat above are an overdone caricature of a young self-righteous couple. Freddie’s mate Jackie is an awkward cartoon. But perhaps this is the consequence of sharing the stage with an astounding Helen McCrory, who carries the performance as Hester.
Carrie Cracknell, the director, called Hester a ‘wild kaleidoscope of emotions’ and McCrory switches from vulnerability to rage to despair within seconds. At times a modern day Mme Bovary, as a girlish romanticism frames her retelling of the first encounter with Freddie. But later as he tries to leave, animalistic passion and desperation characterise Hester’s cries. Watching the play as National Theatre Live stream provided mesmerising close-ups of McCrory; we could see her glistening eyes, her quivering body and an untouched cigarette burning in her hand.
In one sense the audience is fully on her side. Hester becomes the unexpected heroine, and Freddie very much the villain. We condemn the other characters for their ignorance and incomprehension of her problems. And yet, we don’t understand them either. Hester is a nuanced depiction of mental illness. She is somewhat inaccessible, but a different type of intimacy is created as the audience strives to comprehend McCrory’s powerful displays of emotion.
An emotionally overwhelming and thought-provoking play
The inadequacy of words when trying to explain or label the complications of the mind and heart is the crux of the play. Hester plays with the meaninglessness of words, when asked why she tried to kill herself: ‘anger, hatred and shame — in equal parts I think’
The levity and sarcastic delivery of this reply mocks the trivialising of mental illness and the idea that language or scientific calculations – ‘in equal parts’ – is capable of neatly explaining her problems. Similarly when exploring the concept of love during the play Rattigan suggests that language, used universally, is not sufficient to describe individual experience. Neither Hester nor Freddie are capable of articulating the emotions they feel towards each other. Hester protests against what she feels for Freddie being labelled with any conventional terms. Ultimately, they hold different concepts of ‘love’.
‘It’s all far too big and confusing to be tied up in such a neat little parcel and labelled lust’
Rattigan’s prime concern was exploring and portraying the ‘illogicality of passion’; feelings that simply cannot be described. In The Deep Blue Sea we get just that. Language is not enough to cover the heights of the character’s experience. It is not only a heart-wrenchingly tragic love story, but also makes the audience question the meaninglessness of language itself.
National Theatre Live streams live theatre performances to cinemas, providing unrivalled close-up filming of the acting, as well as interviews with the director and cast members during the interval.
Coming next to Oxford
15th December: No Man’s Land — Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart return to the West End stage in this glorious revival of Pinter’s comic classic.