The Deep Blue Sea (NT Live)

  • The Deep Blue Sea (NT Live)

7/7/17 (Fri), Tokyo

A National Theatre Live film of the post-war Rattigan piece. I saw this production in London a year earlier (June 2016) and felt I needed a second look. I was right. 

A wanna-be artist Hester has left a staid marriage with a prominent judge for the passion of a daring test pilot, a contrast in every way: stability vs. instability, respectfulness vs. unpredictability, high class vs. working stiff. Unfortunately, she’s finding her new life wanting as well now that the passion has faded.

She’s not faring too well as the curtain opens – she’s lying on the floor after an attempted suicide sparked by a forgotten birthday, saved only because she didn’t put enough money in the gas meter. The judge, still legally her husband, rushes over on the news, but she continues to rebuff him, apparently not wanting to be known as Mrs. Judge. At the same time, she’s clearly unhappy with her petulant lover, whose own self-esteem and meaning of life as a former RAF pilot pretty much vanished with the end of the war. He seems more peeved than concerned by his lover’s desperation, then angry upon finding her would-be suicide note, his main worry being that it would have made him look bad. He ultimately dumps her, leaving a coin for the meter in case she wants to try knocking herself off again. An upstairs neighbor, a former doctor (with a problematic past of his own) who has been called in to help, senses her fragile emotional state and encourages her to go on living. She seems to be wavering when, after convincing the husband to grant her a divorce and packing her lovers clothes away, she turns on the gas again. In the end, however, she uses that (in this production) to fry an egg – gas as creation rather than destruction. (The egg smelled great in the theater.)

This is a chatty play, but the understated nature of the writing is deceptive. I felt on first viewing that the restrained dialogue made it hard to get to know these characters enough to care about them. The woman was admirable in wanting to be herself rather than the possession of a man, but I had found it tough to embrace her completely. The judge tells her sincerely that he is still in love with her and seems a decent guy, and there is clearly a rapport between them despite their long separation, as when she asks him about mutual friends (“Is so-and-so still quite pompous?” and such). She seemed batty for choosing a flighty alcoholic lover over a wealthy, educated gentleman who truly feels for her. Still, she says the judge’s love is not the kind she is seeking, accusing him of looking for a “wife” rather than a human being. At the same time, she was attracted to the pilot for the intensity of his emotions, something her middle-class upbringing in prewar England never provided, but finds that he, with an identity crisis of his own, wants something different as well.

I enjoyed the scene with the painting spotted by the former doctor, a work from Hester’s early years. He notes that it is brighter and more original than the darker generic pieces she created later, indicating to him that she was painting for herself before but is now painting for the perceived approval of others. He urges her to go back to the basics in both her art and her life. Maybe an obvious symbol, but it worked for me. Much food for thought.

The show seems to be aspiring to Nora and A Doll’s House, and maybe the egg was the equivalent of the slammed door. But Nora’s motivations were starker and her ultimate decision more shocking. It takes longer for the Rattigan piece to sink in; I really only got it with the second viewing. I wonder how younger British audiences respond to this.

The show boasted a superb central performance by Helen McCrory in a role that could easily have been overplayed. She handled the subtleties of the part with perfection, and was devastating as well in the desperate scene when she tries to keep her lover from dumping her. She enjoyed strong support especially from Peter Sullivan as the judge, and their scenes together were expert. The entire show takes place in a single living room, but they’ve thrown in a kitchen and back room as well in an impressively large pad for a struggling couple. We’ll chalk that up to dramatic license. The outstanding feature was the translucent walls allowing us to see movement beyond the woman’s room, including more bodies going up and down the stairs in the apartment building than appeared in the show itself (I was surprised at the number of people on stage at the curtain call). The evocative lighting and ghostly action behind the scene contributed to a moody atmosphere where we feel we are constantly being watched or listened to.

The play is a brilliant construction, and its dialogue and characters beautifully redolent of a certain era. The author seems much more radical than he’s given credit for, conveying great feeling in the characters behind their repressed emotions. I’m glad that the director, Carrie Cracknell, resisted the temptation to make Hester superficially stronger since that would have disturbed the play’s delicate balance. It occurred to me that this kind of show could never be written in modern Britain with its vaunted diversity, since the shared values being assumed here by Rattigan don’t necessarily exist anymore. (A black actor played the pilot’s friend, but I think we’re supposed to assume he’s white given the time period.) It’s good to have productions like this to remind us of what is being lost. I understand there’s a movie version, which I’ll be on the lookout for.

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