“There are polite words. There are impolite words. But they all add up to the same emotion.”
As a playwright, Terence Rattigan effortlessly conveyed the paradoxical nature of the ‘British Reserve’ with the ‘still waters that run deep’ in affairs of the heart. In The Deep Blue Sea (which is directed of Carrie Cracknell) the ‘inequality’ within couples is exemplified in the relationship of Hester Collyer (Helen McCrory) and Freddie Page (Tom Burke).
For this couple in post-war Britain, their relationship is not fully transparent to those around them. While still officially the wife of Sir William Collyer (Peter Sullivan), Hester cohabits with Freddie in a flat in Ladbroke Grove, west London. To the world at large, they are ‘Mr and Mrs Page’.
The play begins with landlady Mrs Elton (Marion Bailey) finding Hester first thing in the morning after a suicide attempt. Kurt Miller (Nick Fletcher) – their neighbour from upstairs – gives ‘medical attention’ to Hester, while neighbours Philip and Ann Welch (Hubert Burton/Yolanda Kettle) are in near hysterics with worry and not knowing the ‘right thing to do’.
Sir William is contacted and makes an initial visit to Hester to assess her physical well-being and state of mind. As for Freddie who was absent over the weekend, he is unaware of what transpired the night before. But upon finding the suicide note that Hester originally left for him, it disturbs him to his core…
The crux of the play is Hester and Freddie’s ‘Phaedra’-dynamic (a mature woman whose affections are focused on younger man who is ‘off-limits’). The reverse is obviously commonplace nowadays – practically the ‘norm’ – but regardless of society’s stance on extra-marital affairs, it is the almost inevitable end to Hester and Freddie’s relationship that potentially spells heartache for her, echoing the concerns in Tennessee Williams’ The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone.
The various characters in the play have different points of view regarding matters of the heart, dictated in part by how rigidly they view the world and the importance they place on the physical aspect of relationships. That said, much of what’s spoken by the various characters can be taken as facets of ‘the whole truth’ – individually incomplete, but ‘on the level’ in a general sense.
In the case of Freddie and Hester, the tension lies in the fact that he doesn’t love her – at least not in the same way or intensity as Hester loves him. Moreover, there may be some truth in Freddie’s assertion that Hester got married to the first man who asked her and that her intense feelings for him stem from the fact he was the first person to “give her the eye”. ‘Rationally’, Hester knows this – why Freddie’s ‘absence’ of feelings and younger age gives him more leverage and why he isn’t ‘good’ for her. But what the heart wants, the heart wants. In the words of Mrs Elton, we like people who we think are ‘nice’ rather than ‘good’…
All things considered, Sir William is a sympathetic figure who is always civil, trying to understand Hester and willing to help her any way he can. But between William wanting to take his wife back and Freddie bidding a hasty retreat from maritorious excesses, Hester chooses to remain in emotional purgatory, unwilling to ‘move on’ or relinquish her pain.
But it is in the character of ‘Dr Miller’ that we find the play’s true voice of reason. Pre-dating ‘Dr Louis Feldman’ in Tom Kempinski’s Duet For One by 28 years, Miller doesn’t sugarcoat the truth for Hester. Instead, he shows that the purpose of life can be found not in the quest for ‘happiness’, but something deeper and more profound.
In terms of this broadcast production by the National Theatre, much thought has gone into the way it’s been shot and the relationship between the actors, their surroundings and each other.
© Michael Davis 2020
The Deep Blue Sea can be watched on YouTube until 16th July: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rc9udhkdizw
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