When Terence Rattigan came out of the first night of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and told a waiting journalist that it should have been called “Look How Unlike Terence Rattigan I’m Being” he clearly knew that his time was up. England’s most popular playwright of the late nineteen thirties and forties had seen the future and it didn’t look like he was going to be a part of it. The debonair millionaire lifestyle of the frankly rather flash former Harrow schoolboy was under threat. He was used to success. In 1944 three of his plays had been running in the West End at the same time, two of his plays ran for over 1,000 performances and another four for more than 500, and at one time he was the highest paid screenwriter in the world. He was right to worry. It was a spectacular fall from popular taste and during his lifetime his reputation never recovered. Since then his plays have been seen, but the theatregoers of his heyday would have been astonished to know how little.
2011 is the centenary of his birth and it is a chance to look back, not in anger but with curiosity, to see whether he was actually any good. The first major production of his centenary is the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s revival of The Deep Blue Sea, written in 1952, with Maxine Peake as Hester Collyer. I have seen The Deep Blue Sea twice and I will say straight away that I think it is a masterpiece. The test for this, in my view, is whether what is happening on stage still resonates with people living in a very different culture and time.
Watching Hester’s suffering unfold is familiar to anyone who has loved and lost, however and whenever it happened. That is great writing. Hester’s tragedy is that she “loves with her eyes open”. She has left her kind, well meaning, decent husband, a comfortable lifestyle and any chance of respectability behind for a chance of passion in a dingy bedsit with her ex spitfire pilot lover Freddy. She can see Freddy’s faults, she knows that he is unable to love her in the way that she needs him to, and it makes absolutely no difference. The conflict which this sets up within her leads to the failed suicide attempt which opens the play and precipitates the day of crisis which forms the plot.
Rattigan’s writing is all about subtext, what the characters don’t say, and this makes it far more challenging than it might seem to perform. You need to see the wheels of the characters inner life going round or you are in danger of being left with simply a beautifully crafted melodrama. Some of the minor characters in this production get lost in clipped vowel sounds and period detail and fall into this trap but the central performances more than make up for that. Maxine Peake is a wonderfully nuanced Hester, showing us the characters interior life and turmoil beneath her brittle exterior, and this makes her both engaging and sympathetic to watch. It is a performance full of life, energy and pent up emotion.
Lex Shrapnel is terrific as Freddy. The moment where he leaves a shilling for the gas meter to ensure that any future suicide attempt by Hester will not fail for lack of gas is one of the cruellest moments in modern drama and both times I have seen it you could hear a sharp intake of breath around the auditorium. What is so clever about Lex Shrapnel’s performance is that he also allows us to see the war damaged man behind the cruelty. Freddy’s life “stopped in 1940” and he is searching for a way to find the excitement and purpose that he had then, as time and too much alcohol dull his reactions and nerve. He simply can’t bear the fact that he is unable to give Hester what she needs and when he tells her that they are “death to each other” he means exactly what he says. The suicide attempt is the final straw for him. However much he wants to he knows that he can’t love Hester in the way that will make her happy and if both of them are to have a chance of survival, let alone happiness, it has to be apart. Without this insight into the character Freddy could be seen as merely a heartless young ne’er do well who drinks too much and couldn’t care less, which is far from the whole truth.
There is another fine performance from John Ramm as Hester’s husband William. It is never easy to play a character who is straightforwardly good, forgiving, decent and genuine, and he does this very well, allowing us to feel for him as he tries to find the answers that he needs from Hester and explain the end of his marriage. There are no answers of course. He has given Hester no reason to leave him but passion doesn’t respond to reason or common sense. Love is not always given where it is deserved and that is his tragedy.
The director Sarah Esdaile has a great feel for period and this informs the production throughout, and a fine understanding of the dialogue and the characters which the more experienced members of the cast have clearly fed off hungrily. I like her work very much. Her Death of a Salesman at the West Yorkshire Playhouse last year was a great production and this is another very good one. The set is atmospheric and beautifully lit, a down at heel flat set in a ruined wasteland of charred sticks and broken golden cornicing which is a constant reminder of the wreckage that war leaves behind.
Not a pitch perfect production this one, but an intelligent and engaging account of a great play with the major aspects of Rattigan’s best work showing through strongly.