Fringe Online 2020
Directed by Carrie Cracknel, Helen McCrory leads a cast including Nick Fletcher, Peter Sullivan and Tom Burke in this revival of Rattigan’s masterpiece. Aquatic set designed by Tom Scutt, lit by Guy Hoare, Music by Stuart Earl, Movement Direction Polly Bennett, Sound Peter Rice, Fight Director Kate Waters. Company Voice work Charmian Hoare. Costume Supervisor Lucy Martin, Had of Wigs, Guiseppe Cannas, Had of Make-Up Adele Brandman.
Broadcast team, Directed for screen by Matthew Amos, Technical Producer Christopher C Bretnall, , Lighting Mike Le Fevre, Sound Supervisor Conrad Fletcher, Script Supervisor Emma Ramsay, Camera supervisor Jamie Carroll, July 16th.
With only one more screening to go of NT LiveAtHome, we return to one of the original NT Live productions. Like last week it’s also from 2016.
Helen McCrory leads a cast directed by Carrie Cracknel, shadowed by Tom Scutt’s aquarium of a set in this revival of Rattigan’s masterpiece. Seeing this production again though is like seeing it washed fresh. The camera-work and close-ups make far more of that echo-chamber that carries the periods tattle and rumours of its time.
But it’s no longer the feeling that The Lives of Others have invaded Ladbroke Grove. What we do get is the detail, the interaction, the expressions of actors that make this far more than the early impression of the magnificent McCrory shouting at the bottom of an ocean, till voices fail to answer her and she drowns.
Like 2011, his centenary, June 2016 proved Rattigan’s month. Chichester Festival revived his 1960 Ross days before this one at the Lyttelton, and at the Arcola Mike Poulton’s Kenny Morgan cannily mapped the original of Rattigan’s inspiration onto the plot of The Deep Blue Sea. Here behold the sea itself.
It’s there in Scutt’s stunning design, that vast aquarium of a boarding house: two floors tenebrous in teals, aquamarines and greys, almost dwarfing the cast. Internals and floors are momentarily lit then screened off. Tellingly lit by Guy Hoare, there’s gulphs and diaphanous moments when the world’s let in and when it isn’t; daylight and a beautiful effect: lamps, and in an inspired modification, frying an egg to signify life since the space would otherwise lose a small gesture. Overall it’s almost an indulgence but works. Sound by Peter Rice sculpts silence punctuated with the yearning of period music by Stuart Earl. Polly Bennett’s Movement Direction is tighter than I’ve seen for any Deep Blue Sea production. There’s a crispness to offset the deceptive languor.
It opens with door-bangings, a discovery by Civil Service neighbours Hubert Burton’s Philip and Yolanda Kettle’s Ann Welch: McCrory’s Hester Collyer has attempted suicide, lies sprawled by the gas fire. Marion Bailey’s Mrs Elton the kindly landlady finally reveals former fighter and test pilot Freddie Page who lives with Hester isn’t her husband, who’s the one they can call for. As they do struck-off Viennese doctor Mr Miller; these characters rapidly swirl in threes and eventually duets as various tragedies play out.
Hester’s left her affectionate but emotionally frozen high court judge of a husband Sir William (Peter Sullivan, adamantine with a perfect creak of emotion) for a superficially exciting but equally frozen ex-ace and test pilot Freddie Page who’s lost his judgment even there, and whose ‘life stopped in 1940’. Rattigan a rear gunner, knew what he was about depicting the type. Freddie can’t answer Hester’s newly-awoken sexual urgency, made palpable in Helen McCrory’s overwhelming performance.
McCrory plumbs the erotic despair of Hester’s abandoned woman with chameleon precision: sang-froid coping, amused dignity, sudden sexual passion, depending on who she’s addressing. With Elton she’s affectionate despite Elton’s killer line ‘you’re my favourite.. why is it we prefer the nice, and not the good?’
Bailey’s excellent, drawing the paradoxes of genteel doublethink, but showing Elton’s refusal to condemn either Hester or Miller. Burton’s well-meaning uptight Philip desperately plumbs the shallows confiding his infatuation for a ‘wrong sort’- an actress whilst lessoning Hester in the unimportance of ‘the physical side’. Burton hunches decent dispatch and out-of-depth decency. Kettle’s slightly clingy Ann clearly intuits it, Kettle never overemphasizing Ann’s jittery need to know Philip’s whereabouts.
There’s darker comedy too as Tom Burke’s Freddie breezes in wholly unaware of the drama, then finds the would-be suicide note; everything changes. Hester’s reactions to Freddie, off-hand sulky, suddenly intensely sexual, then resignedly casual, exhibit her desperate mercurial strategies: a terraced reading of Hester’s acutely intelligent volatile empathies staggering out of meltdown into a battered new shape.
This isn’t just Hester’s tragedy. ‘We’re death to each other Hess’ Freddie announces in a rare flash of insight. In fact roles are reversed. He accepts a job he’s no longer fit for: test pilot in Rio. Unable to answer Hester’s erotic passion, feeling wretched for the only person he cares for but can never love, Freddie opts for a death sentence. By the tine this performance is captured, things shift: That’s now underlined in Burke’s appropriately blustery, naïve almost devastated performance. McCrory does her work, all horror. If she’s not wholly answered that doesn’t register now. Close-ups capture he curl of Burke’s lips, his frowns. He’s far more Page now; that includes a hauntedness.
Hester’s offered life to a man whose life has really ended, then when he couldn’t seize his last chance with her, tried taking her own life. His decision may be death to him, but is an odd transference of grace. Hester’s the one who can make a life, can find so much of it in herself.
The other two encounters elicit far greater if less exciting depth; even here McCrory triumphs. Sullivan’s Sir William is all bemused tolerance over several meetings. The first elicits Hester’s admission that Freddie doesn’t love her, but gives ‘himself’ sexually ‘from time to time’; she’s been able to accept that till now. This after a catch-up, revealing Hester’s urbanity, what she left.
Sir William’s out of his depth, shown comically reacting to the bad claret Hester warns him about, then crucially in kissing her to implore her return: she responds by erotic reflex as if kissing Freddie, which we’ve seen. Sullivan recoils in scarcely controlled repugnance and disbelief. This isn’t the woman he married: she’s suddenly alien to him. Having pleaded for Hester’s return Sullivan’s judge swiftly places his ring on the table and departs. It’s the key insight of this production involving anyone else but McCrory.
Nick Fletcher with Mr Miller’s stunning speech as he detects her second attempt at suicide, is almost youthful. McCrory reacts wonderfully. Perhaps there could be a little more pause – after all despite meaningful silence the production’s swift without a real interval, at two hours four minutes.
Fletcher’s clean-driven reading emphasises an unblinking journey. Miller’s without hope but past despair. It’s a tad too swift in places, not others. Thus Fletcher doesn’t convey all the heartrending stoic recognition between them; that though his life’s ruined he chooses life. Again though his performance has deepened, there’s beats of silence where he lets his words sink in. With his coaxing she might. Miller encourages her gift as a painter with true insight. All her husband can do is collect and offer to pay. Miller does indeed give like Freddie just a little of himself to Hester. You realise it’s a cruel irony these two ‘new friends’ as Miller puts it, aren’t the lovers.
There’s able work too from Adetomiwa Edun as Freddie’s RAF chum Jackie Jackson in neat casting reminding us how many Spitfire pilots, like E.R. Braithwaite (of To Sir, With Love), were black. Edun’s good at balancing bemusement with Jackson being les sharp than Freddie, but registering Hester’s feelings more acutely. The ensemble understudies are present at the curtain: James Alper, Katy Brittain, Elsie Fallon, Nick Figgis, Andrew Lewis, Sian Polhill-Thomas.
Originally – bar flashes from Fletcher in particular, and an flickering ardency from Burke – McCrory has no-one to truly react to. Perhaps that, in this cavernous Scutt set, is the point, though there have been more dynamic, more heartrending conclusions. Seeing it again as a broadcast with an almost painterly sweep and zeroing-in, everything resonates that much more, and it’s later in the run.
The coda, however is still masterly, Hester frying an egg, sitting down to grey-green living. McCrory fills that set with Hester as few can ever have.