“Take two people, A and B. A loves B, B doesn’t love A, at least not in the same way. He wants to, but he just can’t. It’s just not his nature.”
What is person B to do? And what is person A to do? In Terence Rattigan’s 1955 play The Deep Blue Sea, it is Person B, more often called Freddie (Tom Burke) who asks the question. Freddie is drunk, handsome, simultaneously sleazy and sympathetic. Yet the real question of what to do belongs to person A, Hester (Helen McCrory). She is trying to decide whether to live or die.
National Theatre UK’s Production Asks: Can We Empathize Without Understanding?
The play begins with the discovery of Hester’s failed suicide attempt. Neighbors, lovers, and friends react, and try to help as best they can. Some of these attempts to help fail utterly—one man seems to think the pain he felt when giving up his mistress in favor of his wife must be fairly similar to what Hester is going through. Those who do not attempt to understand her sadness turn out to be far more compassionate; an unlicensed doctor recommends taking a sleeping pill and dealing with things tomorrow. Hester, meanwhile, tries to maintain her dignity and piece together the failing relationship which drove her to suicide in the first place.
While huge set changes are almost the norm at The National Theatre, their 2016 production of The Deep Blue Sea remains in Hester’s apartment the entire time. Neighbors enter—sometimes at exactly the wrong moment, sometimes at exactly the right moment—and leave again. The walls are slightly transparent, and we see shadows of movement on the stairs or in other rooms as if through a membrane. The outside world exists, but muted; for Hester, the tragedy of life inside the apartment is absolute.
Primed by the National Theatre website’s description of The Deep Blue Sea as “devastating,” this writer found the production surprisingly humorous and hopeful. Perhaps this is because the play does not try to unpack the emotions that drove Hester to suicide—it asserts that it is impossible for anyone to understand exactly what she is feeling, focusing instead on relationship dynamics and the physical realities of getting through a day on this planet. We are able to empathize with Hester without fully experiencing her pain.
McCrory is Riveting
For a millennial often guilty of pulling out her phone during a movie, The Deep Blue Sea was a refreshing change of pace. It kept its viewer consistently and completely absorbed, without any dramatic plot twists or car chases. Much of this may be due to McCrory’s impressive range. Hester is wildly different from moment to moment—sometimes flirty, sometimes scathing, sometimes collapsed in a heap on the floor—yet we never feel a need to question the shift.
Anyone thinking of watching The Deep Blue Sea must be prepared for discussion and portrayal of suicide. (Though, it should be noted, there are no guns or blood; her attempted method involves pills and gas poisoning.) It is not a situation where one could avoid the trigger by leaving the room for a single scene—Hester’s contemplation of suicide is continuous.
For those who feel able to confront its subject matter, however, The Deep Blue Sea is likely a worthwhile viewing experience. If you are still on the fence, picture this: a woman, alone in the dark, crying, eats poorly cooked eggs on toast—and somehow, it feels like a definition for hope.
CAST, in order of speaking:
Mrs Elton - Marion Bailey
Philip Welch - Hubert Burton
Ann Welch -Yolanda Kettle
Hester Collyer - Helen McCrory
Mr Miller - Nick Fletcher
Freddie Page - Tom Burke
Jackie Jackson - Adetomiwa Edun
Director - Carrie Cracknell
Designer - Tom Scutt
Lighting Designer - Guy Hoare
Music - Stuart Earl
Sound Designer - Peter Rice
Movement Director - Polly Bennett
Fight Director - Kate Waters
For more information and to view this performance, visit the National Theatre’s webpage for THE DEEP BLUE SEA, streaming for free through July 16.
Photos by Richard Hubert Smith, courtesy of National Theater UK
About the Author:
Fiona Warnick is a Creative Writing major at Oberlin College. She has dabbled in ballet and theater, and speaks semi-passable French. Born and raised near Amherst, Massachusetts, she enjoys reading middle grade fiction and hiking in her spare time. She is trying to get better at Scrabble.