Carrie Cracknell Cracks It

Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, being screened currently at the NCPA under its National Theatre Live programme, is a flawlessly crafted masterpiece of sustained emotional power. The director Carrie Cracknell shows a deep, sympathetic regard for the understated tone and even-handed humanism of this 1952 play, to create a work that glows despite its dark content.   

The play opens in a down-market rooming house where Hester Collyer lies before an unlit gas fire in an aborted attempt at suicide. Wife of Sir William Collyer, an illustrious judge, she has been “living in sin” with her lover Freddie Page. But the illicit relationship has frayed beyond repair, leaving her with no way forward and no way back. The money in the gas fire having run out, life too has not ended. “That was lucky wasn’t it,” she remarks wryly to her warm-hearted landlady Mrs Elton, who flaps around her, clucking anxiously.

With Freddie Page missing -- “I’m a golf widow you know”—the only other person who can be called is her husband. He still loves her, cares for her, wants her back. But one kiss tells him she’s a changed woman. Meanwhile Freddie, an ex-RAF pilot for whom the long years of the Second World War were life and what has followed is an anti-climactic muddle in which he has not found his place, is too emotionally shallow to return her passion with a matching passion. He would rather escape into golf and alcohol.

Hester is thus in the dark Rattigan territory of unequal love which fellow playwright David Rudkin once described as a place of “existential bleakness and irresolvable carnal solitude.” Given post-war British society, this solitude was more acutely the mark of homosexual life which Rattigan had personally endured, and which gets reflected in the character of Mr Miller. Also a tenant in Mrs Elton’s house, he has been barred from practising medicine after being imprisoned for what she suggests was a homosexual act. Miller (“Don’t call me doctor”) not only treats Hester’s body after her attempted suicide, but later treats her mind too with advice that is searing in its clinical pragmatism. “Look beyond hope,” he says. “What can there be beyond hope,” she asks. “Life,” he says. “Just live it.”

Helen McCrory’s Hester is a labyrinth of emotions masked bravely by irony and good form. Her body is like a taut wire, exploding with passion at one moment, crumbling with despair the next. When she is on the telephone saying a final goodbye to Freddie, her otherwise even, husky voice cracks, giving us a momentary glimpse of the depths of her helplessness and despair. And yet there is an amazing lightness about her in every move and gesture as she plays one of the most powerful roles written for a woman in modern drama.

Peter Sullivan as Sir Collyer, with his deep voice and sensible, soothing manner, is like a solid rock beside Hester’s ever-imminent collapse. Tom Burke as Freddie does not for a moment look like a man who could have inspired a suicidal passion in a woman as sensitive, talented and poised as Hester. Nick Fletcher as Mr Miller counters McCrory’s bravura performance with one that maintains a zero degree of emotion throughout and for that reason stands up to hers. 

At one point in the play Hester says, “Sometimes, between the devil and the deep blue sea, the deep blue sea seems inviting.” Perhaps this is the key to Tom Scutt’s striking stage design in muted aquamarine. The walls at the back are gauze. When backlit, they show dim figures walking on the stairs, moving around in upstairs rooms, going about the business of living, while Hester sinks in her blue surroundings. She might think she has shut out the world; but she cannot escape those dim figures that might at any moment turn into material presences.

The chair Hester occasionally sits in is placed tightly between two tables, pointing wordlessly to her trapped situation. The light is all outside the windows of the room. Inside, shadows gather, relieved only when the table lamps are lit. There is an eloquent, albeit silent moment, when Hester walks to the sink and raises her head towards the narrow window above, as though breaking through her murky environment for a breath of fresh air. Her upturned face is bathed for a few seconds by the mild sunlight that filters in through the window. This is one of several remarkable moments in an altogether remarkable production.

Published On : 12-10-2016