With a new production of Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea running at the National Theatre’s Lyttelton, we are reminded of the vagaries of theatrical fashion of which Rattigan was a conspicuous victim.
The Golden Boy of West End theatre of the 1940s was banished to the periphery in the late 1950s, dismissed as out of touch and out of sympathy with the new ideas of what constituted good or worthwhile theatre, as exemplified by John Osborne’s Royal Court or Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop.
It is of course a tad simplistic to believe that the emergence of the ‘angry young men’ in the era of Look Back in Anger spelt doom for Rattigan and his ilk. He continued to write plays that were performed in the West End just as if nobody had ever heard of Jimmy Porter. But the engine-room of the British theatre had undoubtedly transferred to Sloane Square from Shaftesbury Avenue.
However, when The Deep Blue Sea opened at London’s Duchess Theatre in March 1952, Rattigan’s decline lay in the future, and it was hailed as yet another triumph for the man with the Midas touch. Peggy Ashcroft received praise for her performance as Hester Collyer, the judge’s wife who sacrifices everything – social position, privilege, an affluent lifestyle, – to run away with a younger man, a Second World War flying ace who struggles to find a role in peacetime.
Interviewed in the New York Herald Tribune, Rattigan described the play as “a study of obsession and of the shame that a sensitive, clear-minded and strong-willed woman must feel when she discovers she has inside her a compulsion that seems too strong to resist”.
For Penelope Wilton, a distinguished Hester in Karel Reisz’s 1993 production at the Almeida Theatre, London, “she goes on an interesting journey in that she is a woman who suddenly wakes up to sex and who hasn’t had such a relationship before”.
It is ironic that Ashcroft had to be energetically wooed before she accepted the offer to play Hester, since the character, arguably the best female role in post-war British theatre, has been tackled by some of our most prominent leading ladies. Alongside Wilton, notable Hesters have included Penelope Keith, Harriet Walter, Greta Scacchi, Amanda Root and Maxine Peake.
“I felt a definite affinity with Hester, and so it was a play I longed to do. But people I told couldn’t understand why I was so keen,” recalls Wilton. “They wondered why I wanted to do what they thought was such an old-fashioned play. But I knew that if we could just get past that silly talking in clipped accents like something out of Brief Encounter, people would see the play for what it was and it could work. I thought it was a fascinating piece that would come alive if we did it properly.”
It is a further irony that the success of this production, which contributed to a more positive view of Rattigan and his work, should have been the responsibility of Reisz, who had a long association with London’s Royal Court and as such could be described as belonging to the opposite camp. Wilton refutes such an argument.
“I think that is something of a fallacy, a journalistic view of the situation. There was tremendous respect for Rattigan as a writer, from Karel, from Harold Pinter and from David Hare, and we were lucky that at the time the Almeida was run by two actors in Ian McDiarmid and Jonathan Kent who wanted to put on the play, and we had a group of actors who were happy to leave the play as it was. The Deep Blue Sea is very much of its time and if you try to take it out of its context then it becomes much less interesting. Besides, great plays are great plays and they’ll withstand what a director does to them.”
In recent years, there has been a good deal of speculation about the connection between the genesis of The Deep Blue Sea and the suicide of the actor Kenneth Morgan, one of Rattigan’s former lovers, in the spring of 1949. In addition, there has been considerable conjecture over the possible existence of a gay version of The Deep Blue Sea, which some people claimed to have read. What does appear to be true is that Rattigan based the arrangement of what we see when the curtain rises on what he heard about Morgan’s suicide. Hester is discovered in precisely the same position in which Morgan was found.
TV director Adrian Brown, a close friend of Rattigan’s in the 1950s and 1960s, is dismissive of the gay-version theory.
“What terrified Terry was the possibility of his mother finding out about his sexuality. It was always a case of mother mustn’t know. So why should he write such a revealing play? For what purpose? Would he have wanted to tell the whole world? Including his mother? I never heard him refer to a gay version of The Deep Blue Sea. In fact, when I knew him he didn’t talk about The Deep Blue Sea very much – it was one of his triumphs in the past. Terry went on to further successes and worked on a number of other plays such as Ross, Variation on a Theme and Man and Boy, for example. For me, Terry’s plays need to be done with a certain style, with a certain grandeur – although that is not quite the right word. Some productions of his work that I have seen have been more like TV soap operas which have trivialised the whole thing.”
For Sarah Esdaile, who directed Maxine Peake as Hester for the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2011, it was the aspect of social history that particularly fascinated her about The Deep Blue Sea.
“It’s a bit like a spoonful of sugar helping the medicine to go down,” she says. “You learn about Britain’s past through the medium of this fantastic play. It was the period that really fascinated me. Women had been empowered during the war, but with the coming of the peace they were disempowered all over again. There is a sense of anti-climax in the air; people feel deflated. Hester is trapped in this terrible limbo-land: she cannot even express her emotional dilemma, such is the power of the lid on her feelings, such is the power of repression.”
To judge by the production history of The Deep Blue Sea, there has been no attempt to overhaul the piece radically in the style of Stephen Daldry’s re-imagining of An Inspector Calls. It has been seen presumably as a piece of realism, with the post-Second World War world carefully recreated on stage.
Wilton argues convincingly that the play should remain in its context, but that too much period detail, including the accents of the characters, can perhaps intrude in the space between the play and the public.
“You’re certainly walking a tightrope – the problem is to be authentic without alienating the audience,” adds Esdaile.
Apart from The Deep Blue Sea at the National, this summer will also see productions of Rattigan’s Ross at Chichester Festival Theatre and a rare sighting of his While the Sun Shines at the Theatre Royal Bath, so it seems that Rattigan’s position among the first rank of our playwrights is secure once more. Not even the pendulum of fickle public or critical favour should dislodge him this time.
The Deep Blue Sea runs at the Lyttelton, National Theatre, until August 17
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