British theatre was thrown a financial lifeline of sorts by the government last week – albeit one that’s short and frayed, offering too little, and arriving too late for some organisations. But some, at least, are now able to look to the future – even if our blundering leaders haven’t yet given them a projected reopening date – and in the meantime, there are two final offerings from the NT At Home season, which has been a cultural beacon for theatre devotees throughout lockdown. The programme bows out next week with Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus. First, though, comes Carrie Cracknell’s revival of this 1952 Terence Rattigan classic The Deep Blue Sea, seen on the National’s Lyttelton stage in 2016 – yet another riveting reminder of all that we are missing.
A bruising drama about the brutality of love – its inequities, its insatiable hungers, its madness, ecstasy and indignities – it begins with a woman stretched out before a gas fire attempting suicide, and ends with her shaky yet steely resolution to face life alone. Helen McCrory is Hester Collyer, the clergyman’s daughter who married well – to William (Peter Sullivan), now a high court judge – then left him for a younger, alcoholic ex-test pilot whose nerves were shot to pieces in the RAF during the war. William – impeccably polite and civilised, swallowing his own dashed hopes with barely a quiver of his stiff upper lip – loves Hester still. She is helplessly in thrall, body and soul, to her one-time flying ace, Freddie Page, who as played by Tom Burke is temperamentally incapable of an equivalent passion, psychologically numbed and scarred by conflict, and exhibits a quite repulsive tendency towards emotional sadism.
On Tom Scutt’s translucent, grey-blue set – the colour, in fact, not just of the sea, but of an RAF uniform – the rooms and stairways of the boarding house where the still-married Hester and Freddie are illicitly shacked up are full of respectable prying eyes and ears. So, as the floundering, dissolute man she loves beyond reason pulls away from her, McCrory’s Hester must suffer in silence, her howls inward, her agony concealed in bitterly ironic quips, in domestic routine, in good manners. When William visits, we get a glimpse of the glittering society hostess she might have been as his wife. There’s even a hint that she misses her former life with him, her eyes gleaming as she asks for news of old friends and peeps out of the window at his shiny new Rolls. But when William tries to entice her back, her rejection is absolute – even as she winces at the pain she knows she’s inflicting. Her desire for Freddie is visceral, urgent. Alone, she crawls on the bare floor next to a shaft of weak, chilly London morning light. From moment to moment, we see her, taut as a wire, battling to contain wildness, torment and desperation within a carapace of deadening convention. It is a beautifully calibrated performance.
Burke’s Freddie is petulant, immature, weak and a bully – a manchild fallen from the clouds into dangerous waters, and as he himself admits, entirely out of his depth. He is so obviously unworthy of Hester that the mismatch almost upends the drama – except that McCrory never leaves us in any doubt that her servitude to such a lover, and her contemptuous self-reproach, is its own torment. There’s a pungent sense, too, of their sexual connection, McCrory almost devouring Burke, he grabbing at her, moments before he finally abandons her, with a vigour disturbingly tinged with cruelty and violence. Hester’s last moments onstage may be punctuated by gulping sobs, but as she cooks herself an egg sandwich and sits, drained and sighing, to eat it alone at her kitchen table, there is a kind of comfort and peace: She is nourishing herself, preparing for what is to come, whatever that might be. It feels like the end of a struggle to survive, and, lungs bursting, she has somehow managed to swim to the surface; now for the hard, but hopeful, new beginning.
Available at www.nationaltheatre.org.uk, streaming until 18 June