The best way to approach The Deep Blue Sea is as a thriller, says Nancy Carroll who is playing Hester Collyer in Chichester Festival Theatre’s Minerva revival of Rattigan’s classic (June 21-July 27).
The piece is set in 1951. In a shabby Ladbroke Grove flat, Hester’s neighbours find her unconscious; she has taken an overdose in front of the gas fire. Their only option is to notify her husband – a pillar of the establishment. But Hester left her husband the previous year to embark on a passionate love affair with ex-RAF pilot Freddie…
“You spend the whole time thinking ‘Is she going to have another go (at killing herself)?,” Nancy says. “But the point is that she is a very interesting woman. She has made the choice to pursue sexual love rather than a comfortable marriage. For all her weakness in Freddie’s arms, she is quite emancipated. She can see the failing of her first marriage. What I am trying to find is the journey that allows her to be utterly vulnerable but also steely in her life. I think it will take the 40-odd performances to do that!
“But I love it. I love the language. I love the way the piece has been cast, that we are all alive, that there is nothing fusty about any of the characters. They are very much alive and sexually switched on, but just misfiring. Ultimately it is a period play, and with a period play, you can do it in a traditional way which it will obviously take, but if you wanted to shake it up a bit to make it all more human and show that it is very much about human emotions, you can, but at the same time you don’t want to go too far. You don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water. You have got to remember that it is still a period play.”
Nancy has previously appeared in a Rattigan. She received the Olivier and Evening Standard Awards for Best Actress for After The Dance at the National Theatre.
“He writes brilliantly and lulls the audience into thinking that they are watching something quite traditional and then you find you are witnessing a car crash. The Deep Blue Sea takes place in 1951 but you want it to connect with people now so that people realise that actually it is a play about being alive, about trying to make something work for many, many years, but then when you are offered something live-affirming you grab it with both hands. But then there is the realisation that she has to fill that void herself. She has gone from father to first husband to Freddie, and actually it is an abyss. Her capacity to love is unending, but she has to realise that she has to love herself… Our director is not telling us how to feel. There are no good guys and bad guys. It is just about people.”
Rattigan remains an author who comes and goes out of fashion. As Nancy says, it is very production-dependent: “With After The Dance, people were surprised by the success of it, and then they did one at the Haymarket, Cause Celebre, and then they did Flight Path.
“And you realise that he was ahead of his time. I have done enough plays where you are desperately trying to crowbar yourself from one scene to the next and give some meat to the bones, but Rattigan feels so real, so full of life.”