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'The Deep Blue Sea' at the National Theatre: When a Bird in a Cage Gets a Room of Her Own

09/06/2016 16:18 | Updated 10 June 2016
Richard Hubert Smith

"Nothing can be called trivial that induces an operative desire to die," Hester Collyer is told by Miller, the doctor who saves her after she tries to take her own life.

Previous productions of Terence Rattigan's subversive, shattering masterpiece, The Deep Blue Sea, thought the reason for this desire to die was clear. Hester is a married woman who ran away with her young lover; her feelings were intense, powerful, and not reciprocated. When Freddie, a young, unemployed ex-pilot forgets her birthday, she lies down under a blanket with her head next to the gas fire.

The text has always been a painful exploration of the destructive potential of intense passion. But Carrie Cracknell's beautiful and revolutionary production has turned it into something altogether more devastating; here, Hester's desire to die is induced by the fact that she is a woman who cannot be contained by the time in which she was born. She doesn't try to commit suicide because she is overwhelmed by love; rather, she has come face to face with the gaping emptiness of her existence and urgently wants to bring it to a premature conclusion.

The decisions Cracknell has made turn it into a different play entirely; it feels like a sequel to A Doll's House, which she directed at the Young Vic in 2012. In Ibsen's play, the curtain comes down on Nora seeking fulfillment through a life of her own; the curtain here rises on Hester after she has been spat out on the other side.

Instead of playing her as a hysterical woman flinging her love around like a hand grenade, Helen McCrory's Hester is calm and clear whenever she speaks. We can picture her in a different life - we know she is intelligent, has hosted parties, given speeches, and hopes to make money from her paintings.

In former productions, her decision to run off with her lover might have been seen as shallow and rash. Here it comes an inevitability. "I had more to give you than you wanted me to give," Hester tells her husband. Leaving her marriage is a rejection of the conditions that stifle her, an unwillingness to participate in a partnership that will never be equal.

Tom Burke plays her lover Freddie with a brutish volatility. He seems a troubling choice of partner, but an enticing option for someone driven mad by the mundanities of domestic life. His childishness is always apparent - he talks at one hundred miles per hour, grips Hester by the throat after an embrace, and gets drunk first thing in the morning. When he's around, the air is alive with the possibility that he could explode at any moment.

Next to Burke's nasty Freddie, who lingers around Hester like an animal sniffing out its prey, her husband William (Peter Sullivan) seems a safe option for a comfortable life. But Cracknell makes it clear that wherever Hester turns, men will always hurt her. Both regard her as a possession. Her husband is indifferent, blind to her need for a more fulfilling life, and her lover is cruel and vicious.

As she battles through a life that she's never allowed to claim as her own, she is patronizingly told by men, "I know how you must be feeling." But they can't. Even when Hester thinks she has a room of her own, she's still just a bird in a cage.

The play ends with what could be seen as the briefest glint of hope. Hope, perhaps, or is it a borrowing from Beckett - "I can't go on; I'll go on"?

"It takes all sorts to make a world," Hester's neighbour, Mrs Elton, tells her. Hester believes that - she wishes for it. Her tragedy is that the world she lives in won't allow her to play her part in making it.

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