There’s a knock-knock knocking at the door in the dark. Something traumatic has clearly happened, caught somewhere between the Devil and the revival of The Deep Blue Sea. Written by the legendary British playwright, Terence Rattigan (1946’s The Winslow Boy), this emotionally wrought play was given a passionately intriguing revival in 2016, and recorded during that run at the National Theatre in London for us all now to stream on their YouTube channel until July 16th, 2020. Directed with a complexity of captivating action and inaction by Carrie Cracknell (Broadway/Public Theater’s Sea Wall/ A Life), the psychological underpinnings of anger, hatred, and shame at being alive gets beautifully tangled up inside the miraculously haunting performance that is delivered by Helen McCrory (National Theatre’s Medea). “She tried to kill herself last night“, is the dramatic framework that stirs up the waves in the deep dark waters of this every so British entanglement that is her guilty secret. The capacity to inspire suicidal love and subsequent actions are the floating claws of the trap inside this sturdy boat, and the aftermath of this failed suicide attempt is where Rattigan attempts to reveal the fragile surfaces of post-war civility that lives in the tiered class structure of British society. The tempestuous fading affair between a former RAF pilot and the woman that brings about the sinking of her marriage to a High Court judge is the fuel for this portrait of need, loss, and longing, and the gas that paints the portrait of loneliness and fear.
Just beyond the transparent walls of the expansively dark set, designed with an expansive vision by Tom Scutt (Almeida’s Summer and Smoke), the watchful eyes of the neighbors peer in etched in care and worry. Their focus is McCrory’s Hester Collyer, a judge’s former wife who has abandoned the easy life of comfort for the tempting Freddie Page, played swimmingly by Tom Burke (Old Vic’s Design for Living). Floating in mysteriously engaging pools of light and dark, designed beautifully by Guy Hoare (West End’s The Father), Hester and Freddie are treading water, barely able to keep their heads above the surface, gasping for air. He tries, but struggles to keep up with her emotional needs, let alone her financial ones. Their sexual chemistry truly does reverberate off every stick of furniture in that ramble of a flat in Ladbroke Grove, West London. 1952. The pair find passion in their entwined limbs, but that ache of security within throws Hester out of her depth, into the deep dark waters without the tools or the means to save herself from possible drowning.
The beginning pulls us in immediately and effortlessly with the eerily strong pull of Stuart Earl’s (NT’s Julie) music and the striking sound design by Peter Rice (NT’s On the Shore of the Wide World). A young married middle-class couple upstairs, perfectly portrayed by Yolanda Kettle (“The Crown“) and Hubert Burton (West End’s The Inheritance), finds the almost lifeless body of their neighbor and takes caring action; an outlawed doctor, played with a knowing nod to equivalence by Nick Fletcher (NT’s Treasure Island), who has been kicked out of his true profession delivers the healing structure and words in and out on repeat that has a lasting effect on the lady at that core of it all, and the loose-lipped lovable landlady, deftly portrayed by the wonderful Marion Bailey (NT’s Grief), floats around like a life-saver finding the tolerance and compassion to understand and not judge the actions of the desperate. It’s the total elevation and exploration into the layers of British class culture, carefully crafted in their responses. Each are given the required societal dilemma to find their station’s morality within, alongside the High Court judge’s own stance, handsomely played by Peter Sullivan (Broadway/West End’s Rock n Roll). He arrives in his chauffeur-driven Rolls, called into action unbeknownst to the lady that was once his wife, only to find Hester alive but still enraptured by a desire, not of the same class. He tries his best to pull her back, but she decisively rejects the more stable life offered time and time again. She knows in her heart the difference between acceptance and love, as we see the waves of The Deep Blue Sea failing to return the structure back into some semblance of sanity.
The formulations find power in their structure and in their passion, as the lofty stratified neighbors play their societal parts with aplomb. They all find nuance in their stratosphere, but it’s McCrory’s trembling performance that almost lights the gas on fire, ricocheting the flames across this moody space, finding passion within her horribly inefficient dreadful ways that are “a bit dopey.” She bungles it all up magnificently, formulating different personas within a moment, depending on the man or woman standing in front of her, even after her aborted suicide. She radiates irrational passionate neediness that buckles her legs and tangles up her sanity, making life too difficult not to drown oneself in illogical hope. “You and I are death to one another“, she is told. This truth slams her beady gorgeous eyes up against the discomfort of being left alone, a fear that is shared by others, but not in the same extreme way. Inside one of McCrory’s best clashes of authenticity and desperation when she informs her kind steadfast neighbor that she blatantly just lied to Freddie, is where we discover the honesty of desperation that rings as clear as the ability for her neighbors to know what is truly going on behind closed doors. Her performance shatters the walls and almost brings her to the edge. Lucky for her, Fletcher’s insightful ex-doctor sees a way forward, a way to navigate the rough waters, maybe just long enough for her to survive. We feel the conflicted gasp for air by the open window, even though we know that the coin has been paid and the drowning is only a turning of the knob away. In that complexity, we feel her struggle and her pain, hoping with all our hearts that the lifejacket given will keep her afloat just long enough to reach dry land.
National Theatre at Home is an initiative from the National Theatre that provides access to free content online to serve audiences in their homes. Audiences around the world can stream NT Live productions for free via their YouTube channel. Next up is the National Theatre’s production of Amadeus by Peter Shaffer. Please donate to the National Theatre or your favorite neighborhood theatre company. They all need our help to survive this troubled time.