Monday, August 29, 2016

Helen McCrory in The Deep Blue Sea

Helen McCrory in The Deep Blue Sea. (Photo by Richard Hubert Smith)

Helen McCrory gives an exquisite portrayal of Hester Collyer, the shattered heroine of Terence Rattigan’s 1952 The Deep Blue Sea, in Carrie Cracknell’s fine production at the National Theatre. (Audiences can see it worldwide in the NT Live series in September and October.) Filmgoers on this side of the Atlantic might or might not recognize McCrory from some of her character work in the movies, but in England she’s a star, and deservedly so. This is the third major performance I’ve seen her give at the National: she was the drifting, wounded daughter in Stephen Beresford’s The Last of the Haussmans and an unforgettable Medea (also under Cracknell’s direction). McCrory is an almost frighteningly intelligent actor, and perhaps her most distinctive feature is a wry wit that can be withering; amusement transforms that porcelain face – breaks it up, lends it an almost mandarin quality. As Hester, the wife of a judge who left him nearly a year ago for a younger man with whom she lives in a middle-class apartment house, pretending for reasons of propriety to be married to him, McCrory uses that wit as a means of showing the acuteness of her character’s self-understanding. She’s profoundly and irretrievably in love with a man she knows is incapable of reciprocating because he lacks depth and because his masculine pride and need to protect himself get in the way. I’ve seen two other masterful actresses in this role: Vivien Leigh in Anatole Litvak’s 1955 film version and Blythe Danner in a revival at the Roundabout Theatre in 1998. Leigh brought the role the wracked romanticism for which she was famous; it may be the only one of her post-Blanche DuBois performances that truly showcased her gifts. Danner made the sexual nature of Hester’s feelings for Freddie Page audaciously explicit. McCrory, like Danner, delves into the character’s passion; what sets her apart is a divided consciousness – the sense that Hester is watching herself in a mirror, bewildered by the recklessness of her own actions. It’s the combination of her helplessness and her awareness that make McCrory’s Hester heartbreaking.

Rattigan’s career began in the mid-thirties and though he continued writing until his death in 1977, his kind of play – psychologically dense, technically expert, rendered in the elegantly restrained style of the drawing room – fell out of fashion with the onslaught of the angry young man plays in the mid-fifties. As a college student I didn’t read any of his plays in my dramatic lit classes, and except for the odd movie adaptation I didn’t see any performed until perhaps twenty years ago. Around his centenary (2011) the English theatres in particular took him up again, and he’s once more a vibrant part of the repertory, to my delight (I’m a big fan). The Deep Blue Sea is among his best work. It pivots on a double irony. Hester has left her husband Bill (Peter Sullivan in the NT production), who is devoted to her and for whom she still feels a considerable tenderness, to bind herself to Freddie (Tom Burke), who doesn’t deserve her and can’t love her in the way she loves him. What sets the play in motion is her unsuccessful attempt to kill herself. It scandalizes the apartment building, but it also draws the sympathy of her landlady, Mrs. Elton (a lovely contribution from Marion Bailey, who played the widow Mrs. Booth in the Mike Leigh film Mr. Turner), the young neighboring couple, Philip and Ann Welch (Hubert Burton and Yolanda Kettle), and the émigré ex-doctor, Miller (Nick Fletcher), who takes care of her. Freddie is off playing golf when the neighbors find Hester unconscious – she turned on the gas but neglected to feed the meter to keep it going, and her forgetfulness saves her life – and when Mrs. Elton, the only person in the house who knows her story, lets it slip that she’s actually married to the distinguished Judge Collyer, straight-arrow Philip thinks it’s his duty to telephone Collyer. So we get a scene between the now-recovered Hester and her estranged husband before Rattigan brings the notably absent Freddie onto the scene. This is a three-act play (though Cracknell doesn’t call an intermission until the end of act two), and after the interplay of the neighbors the first act consists entirely of Hester’s reunion with Bill and then a shorter scene between her and Freddie – during which she pretends that nothing has happened but he finds her intended suicide note and walks out of the apartment in a silent rage.

Tom Burke and Helen McCrory. (Photo by Richard Hubert Smith)

Hester didn’t leave Bill out of dislike or resentment; she’s not Emma Bovary or Thérèse Desqueyroux, trapped in a suffocating bourgeois marriage. Though when he sees her again his questions have the relentlessness of a witness interrogation (as she points out) and she responds like a worm wriggling on a hook, he really doesn’t mean to put her through such agony; it comes out of his genuine concern for her. Once he eases off, embarrassed, their conversation takes on a surprising yet fully plausible warmth. They fall back into old rhythms, old topics, gossip about his set. It’s his recognition that she’s wearing a bracelet he once gave her that melts the barrier between them; there’s a sweet moment when he tells her that he’s bought a Rolls Royce and she rushes to the window to catch a glimpse of it. She’s extremely fond of him, but she doesn’t love him, and – though it isn’t until the third act (and their final of three scenes together) that she tells him this – she’s sure that he has never loved her, at least not in the way that she defines love. She says he thinks of her as a prized possession that he covets even more now that it’s been stolen from him. The play is about different ideas about what love is, and at least in this production it’s an open question whether Hester is accurate in her assessment of Bill’s – whether she’s underrating it. In both the movie and the Roundabout version you didn’t doubt Hester’s definition of true love because she seemed more alive than anyone else, but with McCrory you focus as much on her folly as on the depth of her passion, and it’s possible that her quest for a love to match her own has blinkered her to the value of what Bill offers her. (He’s anxious to take her back, but she refuses.)

Rattigan is unfailingly fair to all three of the main characters, including Freddie. (Both Sullivan and Burke give excellent performances, especially Sullivan, who follows in the wake of Simon Russell Beale’s touching rendition of the part in the otherwise misbegotten Terence Davies movie version released five years ago.) Freddie tells his pal Jackie (Adetomiwa Edun) that he loves Hester but that he believes in “moderation in all things” and hates “getting tangled up in other people’s emotions.” His idea of love may strike us as tepid, certainly compared to Hester’s, and he’s capable of cruelty to her: learning that the trigger for her suicide attempt was his forgetting her birthday, he plops a shilling down on the table before going out for a drink with Jackie, just in case he’s late coming home and this trivial negligence prompts her to try again. (This is the most shocking moment in the play.) But Rattigan isn’t using the character of Freddie to comment on the chilliness of English manhood; he’s far too complex a psychologist to write in that kind of straw man as a major character. Freddie is carrying around his own psychic wounds. He flew in the R.A.F. in the early days of the Second World War, and as Hester explains it his life stopped at that high point. He became a test pilot but has abandoned that career because he suddenly found he’d lost his nerve. So he’s a man, still young (Hester is about a decade older), who’s defined himself by physical action and now finds that he’s unable to fulfill his own image of himself. Hester’s claims on him belong to a realm in which he feels uncomfortable; he’s accustomed in every way to a freedom on which she impinges by her very nature.

If any of the characters is a foil to Hester, it isn’t Freddie; it’s Philip Welch, a clerk at the Home Office, an educated young man of severely constricted imagination who, though certainly moved by her plight, sees in her a licentious indulgence. Her fate operates for him as a kind of cautionary tale. He confides in her toward the end of the play that he had a fling with a chorus girl but came to his senses before he allowed it to imperil his marriage to the now-pregnant Ann. At a young age (he’s in his twenties), he’s already got the repression of his class and culture down. Yet we wonder what the future of that marriage will be – if he’ll ever explode out of himself in middle age as Hester did when she fell for Freddie. Philip’s conduct has a banal familiarity, including the gender loyalty that impels him to go drinking with Freddie and run errands for him when he decides that he needs to leave Hester.

Hubert Burton and Yolanda Kettle. (Photo by Richard Hubert Smith)

McCrory is gripping from her first scene, but she has a couple that are almost like arias: her speech to Bill about how she fell for Freddie and what she feels for him (it’s as if something were coursing through her veins, simultaneously lighting her up and poisoning her) and the phone call, in act three, to the club where he’s spending the night before taking off for a new job away from her. When she wheedles from Ann Welch the information about the bar Philip went to with Freddie, you can see her go to work, storing up her all her ingenuity to get a foothold on him before he walks out of her life forever. She comes to life again; she always does when she can focus on him. Her desperation on the phone with him recalls the great Jean Cocteau monodrama The Human Voice – especially in the Roberto Rossellini movie version, with Anna Magnani – where the protagonist grasps the instrument like a lifeline.

The play is realist, but Cracknell imports effective moments of expressionism at the beginnings and ends of scenes, in Guy Hoare’s lighting and Peter Rice’s sound design, and beyond the bounds of Hester’s apartment Tom Scutt’s set is expressionistic as well. It’s the kind of set the National loves to erect – massive, with suggestions of the world beyond the area circumscribed by the text. We see the outlines of other living spaces above hers, and strangers move through them or congregate in them (a luxury that only a theatre like the National, with its ample repertory company, can afford). It’s an impressive piece of design, but it belongs in some other play; Rattigan’s is scarcely about the environment that houses Hester’s tragedy. (It isn’t Street Scene or Dead End.) The most compelling use of the stage is a staunchly realistic one, at the end, when Hester fries a real egg on the stage-left stove and then sits down to eat it, and we realize that she’s made the decision to keep living. (Rattigan’s stage directions have her begin to pack; Cracknell’s choice is much stronger.)

There’s only one thing in the play that I would change. I wish Rattigan hadn’t written in the character of the disgraced one-time physician, Miller (the text is vague about the reason he went to prison, wrecking his career, but we assume he performed an abortion on one of his patients). Nick Fletcher is very good in the role, but Miller exists to offer an example to Hester of enduring hardship and continuing to live; he even makes a speech to her about it just before the final curtain. He’s a figure out of melodrama, so he’s out of place in The Deep Blue Sea, which transcends melodrama at every other turn.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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