It starts with the chickening, ends with an egg. The famous failed suicide, the image of the woman slumped by a gas fire, opens Carrie Cracknell’s cold, detailed production of Terence Rattigan’s great play. The utmost technical proficiency seeps into every moment on the Lyttelton stage. But for all the skill, there remains a chill in the air; a detached coolness matching the almost icy blue/grey of both Tom Scutt’s looming set and Guy Hoare’s perfect lighting.
Cracknell scrubs away some of the play’s half-century’s worth of tarnish, and reveals Rattigan to be a forward thinking playwright who created an extraordinary female character in Hester Collyer, a woman ‘living in sin’ with former pilot Freddie Page, driven to suicide because he had forgotten her birthday. But sixty years on, the play feels old. It feels dated and traditional, especially in the Lyttelton’s proscenium arch frame, at the National Theatre, especially alongside something like Les Blancs – written only 15 years later – that takes charge of its theatricality so completely.
Helen McCrory has a natural ferocity that emerges through Hester’s character. Other characters describe her as a ‘nice’ person, and this is evident from her actions too. When Mr Welch tactlessly gives her a piece of his mind about her silly behaviour – ‘I do think you ought to try and steel yourself…if you do think things out honestly you’ll see how awfully petty the whole thing really is’ – Hester’s restraint is remarkable. ‘I’m glad you didn’t fly at me for it’ he says, and it’s a possibility we feel too.
But she doesn’t. Her violence and her anger – her blame, too – are directed only towards herself. That kind of self-loathing, which intensifies until the victim can only see one, tragic solution, is too sadly recognisable in contemporary relationships, and even more upsetting in a society that taught women to make men’s lives easier at the expense of themselves. The fact that Hester remains kind and even grateful towards her neighbours despite the inward state of mind that is driving her to suicide makes for one of the most moving aspects of her character and of the play. But it’s difficult to match this outward saintliness with McCrory’s daggering eyes.
McCrory commands the stage with such latent ferocity that, even when Welch is bumblingly attempting to put her in her place by re-stating the proper roles and feelings for men and the proper roles and feelings for women, there is still no doubt that McCrory is in charge – and that Welch is a little frightened of her.
McCrory’s Hester is absolutely convinced of her love for Freddie; Rattigan seems convinced of the impossibility of that love. Rattigan’s view of love is as tragic as it is realistic: this notion of equation and mutuality. A must love B, and B must love A but that’s not enough. They must love each other in the same way and with the same kind of love. That’s how the play claws at its 1950s context, scrabbling like someone buried alive. The love Hester can offer is passionate and physical and consuming and it’s what she wants in return too. For her ex-husband Justice William Collyer, those ingredients do not a respectable wife make.
For Freddie, it’s almost as if he doesn’t want to be cuckolded into remembering his squeeze’s birthday and doing and being all the other things that diminish his status as a man. A lad. Besides which – and something that Tom Burke’s performance doesn’t quite nail – Freddie is an ex-RAF pilot whose shot nerves have turned him to drink. How can love come from that numbness?
Whenever Peter Sullivan’s Collyer comes on stage, something calm and reassuring seeps into the atmosphere. In his presence, Hester becomes mature and frank. She sheds that cotton candy besottedness that envelops her when Freddie’s around and becomes a real person. Here’s the sensible prospect. The man who can provide: emotionally, financially, materially. But not physically. So swirling in the fag smoke and whiskey fumes is something more tense, more tantalising. Hester should reunite with Collyer as the man who can give her the structure necessary for continuing to live – the walls and roof and money. Hester shouldn’t reunite with Collyer because he can’t give her anything to live for. He may love her, and Collyer does give that impression in his calm and restrained way, but without reciprocity she’ll be as miserable as she is with Freddie.
It’s less Cracknell and more designer Tom Scutt who draws attention to, and so slightly excuses (or at least attempts to address), the antequation of this big, proper, old-fashioned play which, for all its proto-feminism, is still gratingly dated in its swift, clipped dialogue of ‘old chap’ and ‘ruddy’ and ‘damned’ and ‘darling’. This flat is more rundown, more bedsittish, than expected from the former wife of a top brass judge. The tenement block, staircases twisting upwards half-visibly behind the walls, is almost completely realistic except for the fact that everything is a gloomy blue. This oceanic murk washes over the whole set, a flat that doesn’t get enough sunlight, the lack of vitamin D reflected in its inhabitants. And the multi-storey monolith, with its translucent gauze walls that allow light and sound and surveillance to seep through, is ever so slightly too small for the cavernous Lyttelton stage. The edges of the set are narrower than the edges of the stage, so the wings are visible.
We’re forced to confront the artificiality of the production: as convincing as Guy Hoare’s extraordinary lighting is – pools of weak, warm sunlight that, unable to reach fully into the flat, only illumine half of it and leave the rest in gloom – we can see in the wings the lights that make it. When Freddie finds and reads Hester’s suicide note, the light almost imperceptibly cools and the curtains gently start to billow. The chill that settles and that creeps down the spine is a remarkable detail of a production that uses realism to pull its theatricality into focus.
Restraint, stretched taut like elastic, colours every word in every scene. It prevents these characters from speaking their minds until absolutely necessary. It also stretches to the non-textual aspects of the production, particularly the design. The gas meter is conspicuous on the wall, but we know it’s a necessary function of the play. The cupboards are conspicuously bare, except for the one bottle of wine that is necessary as a prop in the play. Nothing here is superfluous. Every single thing is true to the detail of a 1950s flat but, by its necessity for use in the play, is made to seem artificial too. We know it’s only there because it’s necessary. As well as the lighting and the set, the sound plays into the subtly self-aware theatricality of the production: the background thunderstorm rumbles just a little too loudly.
So when Hester breaks down at Freddie’s feet and unashamedly, her dignity dripping away, begs him to stay, the restraint and the ever-so-slight theatricality of this onstage world has insinuated itself into the subconscious. As Hester cries, we know that the neighbours can hear through those permeable walls. What will they think of her? It’s almost as if McCrory is shouting through the fourth wall, too. She abandons repression, she abandons the behaviour that her world has taught her is dignified, and she screams through this invisible membrane to the 21st century begging to be free.
Although scorned by the play’s first critics, the happy(ish) ending is in Cracknell’s production a phenomenal showpiece, a deeply satisfying tierce de picardie, at once uplifting and deflated. Glory and bathos collide in that final image as Hester – a woman alone in a grubby little flat in Ladbroke Grove – fries an egg, sticks it in a slice of Mother’s Pride and eats. The metaphors and metonyms at work here are astonishing. The symbol of the egg as the promise of new life (and of Hester’s renewed life), as a mark of womanhood. The fact that the eggs we can eat are the unfertilised ones, as Hester resigns herself, most likely, to a life alone and childless. McCrory shows the colossal effort required to make the simplest meal, because this egg butty is the decision to go on living. The act of eating, of nourishing and fortifying, eating devoid of pleasure but a necessary deed for the continuation of life. The former wife of a rich judge is now a penniless spinster but with what profound strength she owns that spinsterhood. She has found value in her own life, not – as previously – her life in relation to a man, but her life in and of itself. On its own terms. She has torn herself away from dependency and become an individual. All in the bite of an egg butty.
The Deep Blue Sea is on until 21st September 2016. Click here for more information.