“The Deep Blue Sea” at Chichester

The reviewers mostly got this right, as to the production. But several missed the main point about the nature of Rattigan’s themes, and especially as we see them at work in this play.

You’ll have read by now that Hester Collyer has run away from her husband, a rich judge, to be with a slightly inadequate but handsome ex-RAF pilot and WW2 hero. Most reviewers seem to think that she is an upper middle class woman struggling to adapt to her new poverty and driven to her unpretty pass by lust. So far, so conventionally Rattigan.

But Rattigan is a much more subtle social operator than that. To some extent all his plays are about dissidence, and precisely not about conformity. A bit like Singer Sargent, he can deliver a swagger portrait, but the picture which emerges is of the troubled mind, not the complacent one. It is obvious that Hester is troubled by the way Freddie Page cannot return her love, and that is a big part of the play.

But what happens next is what matters. Hester is a clergyman’s daughter. She is clear that Collyer, her judge and husband, believes that he stooped when he married her, and his act of marrying beneath him ought to make her feel doubly obligated to him: as a wife, and as a wife riskily chosen.

Rejected by Page, Hester knows that she cannot go back to Collyer. With Page she has known proper sexual relations and she knows that Collyer can’t deliver. So she has to move on. The new freedom she has to risk is not particularly a matter of breaking social convention (that very slightly more troubles Freddie then her). It is about getting on with being whatever falls to her: maybe the right man, maybe loneliness.. who knows? She also has the chance of artistic and economic freedom, but neither is free. (The young couple in the piece are an example of the new equality available to young women, if they are determined enough.)

And the big point about Rattigan’s play is that all around her she has already been shown how open the world is to peculiarity. Her landlady prefers amiability to goodness; the defrocked doctor is a good man but has been a criminal (an abortionist, perhaps). It falls to him to spell it out in the denouement. What follows is a bit of a spoiler: the doctor’s last speeches are about the ordinary human courage you need to face a world in which there are no rules. And Hester decides at last to face that fact.

So where is the Rattigan of stereotype here? Where the Rolls Royces and the Saville Row suits and the impeccable social manners? To all appearances he may be Collyer, but there are obviously much bigger bits of his interiority all over the other characters.


I think there's probably a lot to say about Rattigan's work in Mockingbird pecivertspe.His "Table Number 7", which is act two of "Separate Tables" and for which David Niven won an Oscar in the filmed version is a triumph of forgiveness credibly portrayed. I recommend that one highly.After that might come "Sir Terence"'s last stage play, entitled "In Praise of Love". So much grace that it is almost unbearable, and in a real situation. (The play is based on the illness of the actress Kay Kendall, who was married to Rex Harrison and I think Rattigan may even be a character in the play.)This work is not in the genius category of Charles Dickens, but almost every play of Rattigan's portrays a small-step and therefore credible victory of grace in relation to love gone awry in personal or domestic life."The Browning Version" and "The Deep Blue Sea" are still the high points, though.Finally, Vivien Leigh played 'Hester', the principal character of "The Deep Blue Sea", in the film of it.It's not available on DVD. Rattigan thought that the director, Anatole Litvak, had made some changes of which he disapproved.

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Publication date

04 August 2011


On theatre