In Nicholas Wright’s new play, Rattigan’s Nijinsky, with which this revival is twinned, he has an aging Rattigan argue that there is nothing dishonest about his writing, that there is no process of camouflage at work, and that his women were always written as women. Philip Franks’ production of Rattigan’s best-known play seems to bolster this argument, that Rattigan wrote women and wrote them well.
In The Deep Blue Sea, written in 1952, middle class clergyman’s daughter, Hester, has left her husband, Sir William Collyer, a respected judge, for life in a cramped flat with former RAF pilot Freddie. She has given up a safe, secure if unsatisfying relationship for one with a man to whom she is passionately attracted, even though he does not – cannot – love her, at least not with the same force. This lacuna between the reality of her situation and the strength of her feelings lead her to attempt suicide (a half-hearted attempt, she forgets to feed the gas metre beforehand and is saved by her inquisitive neighbours).
In the foggy aftermath of this act, the full truth of her predicament gradually becomes clear. She has left one man whose love she can’t return for a younger man who can’t return her love. She is trapped; though desperate for Freddie, she sees clearly that he is not capable of giving her what she wants. He sees this too, which makes their situation all the more unbearable; he knows that he is the cause of her despair and he cares about her enough for this to cause him anguish.
Hester is played with dignity and poise by Amanda Root. It’s an exceptionally measured performance with the result that, when she breaks down and becomes distraught at the prospect of Freddie leaving her, the rawness, the sheer emotional overflow of her response, is difficult to watch.
The recent revival of Rattigan’s wartime play, Flare Path, adds extra shading to the character of Freddie in terms of what he went through in the war and what he’s signing up for when he decides to take a job as a test pilot. Rattigan served in the RAF and knows those men, what drives them. Freddie in some ways thrived in the war and has been a little lost ever since. John Hopkins conveys the character’s geniality and charisma along with an underlying acknowledgement that he is not the man he was nor can he be the man Hester wants him to be.
Anthony Calf’s performance as Sir William mirrors Amanda Roots in many ways, there is that same measured quality – which marks his character apart from Freddie – but though he does love Hester in his way, convention prevents him from feeling things as deeply as she does.
The thrust stage of Chichester’s Festival Theatre is perhaps too exposing a space, ultimately working against the intensity of Hester’s predicament – though her dingy post-war flat is well evoked by Mike Britton’s rubble-fringed set. The nature of the stage also necessitates a lot of bustle and clatter and there’s a lack of stillness in Franks’ production; for all its surface elegance it doesn’t fully evoke Hester’s emotional journey, her eventual awakening.