The Deep Blue Sea

The Deep Blue Sea (1952) overview

Hester Collyer is one of the great roles of British theatre. She is a character filled to the brim with longing; brittle, proud, strong-willed; highly sexual and emotionally complicated.

Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea unfolds over the course of a single day. It opens with an unconscious Hester being discovered on the floor of the Ladbroke Grove flat that she shares with her younger lover, having attempted to end her life. She’s recently left her husband Sir William Collyer, a High Court judge, for Freddie, a charismatic but emotionally remote former pilot, a man numbed by his wartime experiences and unable to adjust to life in peacetime. She loves him in ways he cannot love her, can never love her; she sees this and it eats at her.

The play features several tender exchanges between Hester and Sir William as well as with Mr Miller, the former doctor who lives in the same building as Hester and comes to her aid, and with whom she forms an emotional bond. They understand something of each other, having both been cast out from conventional society. When Freddie eventually leaves Hester for a job as a test pilot in South America, Hester determines to take her own life but is ultimately persuaded not to by Mr Miller. However, it is only in the final moments of the play – as Hester lights the gas fire – that the audience see that she has resolved to live.

The play was a reaction to the repressive social climate of the 1950s. It was in part inspired by Rattigan’s own relationship with Kenneth Morgan at a time when homosexuality was still illegal, but The Deep Blue Sea is not a straightforward transposition or an act of pure autobiography. Rattigan was a playwright of great empathy, and The Deep Blue Sea is an incredibly rich piece of dramatic writing.

Key productions of The Deep Blue Sea

First performed in London in 1952, the original production starred Peggy Ashcroft as Hester and Kenneth More as Freddie. Margaret Sullavan played the role of Hester in its US production, which subsequently transferred to Broadway.

In recent years Harriet Walter and Greta Scacchi have played Hester, with Helen McCrory playing the role in the National Theatre’s major 2016 revival, directed by Carrie Cracknell. Of McCrory’s performance, The Observer theatre critic Susannah Clapp said, ‘She turns the closing moments into an episode of surprising gusto after grief. She reclaims herself’.

Virginia McKenna and Penelope Wilton have played Hester for the BBC, the latter opposite Colin Firth. In 2011 Terence Davies directed a film version of the play, starring Rachel Weisz with Simon Russell Beale as Sir William and Tom Hiddleston as Freddie.

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