You learn a lot about a show in performing it, says Marta Dusseldorp. Sometimes, you discover that it isn’t as interesting as you thought it was in rehearsal.
Then there are plays like Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea and its lead character, Hester Collyer, a woman struggling to regain the passionate attention of her lover and discover her true self. Every night is a revelation, Dusseldorp says.
“It’s like a different play every time I do it. Some nights, Hester seems to know everything. Sometimes, it’s like she knows nothing. Some nights she listens to other people, some nights she can’t or won’t and there’s a kind of belligerence in her. Some nights, I judge her, some nights I don’t. I feel like there’s a million ways to do it.”
Love and marriage
First performed in 1952, Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea is focused on Hester, a woman who has left a steady but passionless marriage to an older man for a dingy London flat with Freddie, a charismatic but emotionally damaged ex-pilot.
It was, for a while, a tempestuous and fulfilling relationship, but Freddie’s ardour has started to cool. The play begins with Hester on the brink of death, having attempted suicide in a misguided effort to revive Freddie’s affections.
Hester, says Dusseldorp, is a woman of her time and place – upper middle-class England in the post war years – but her plight strikes a chord with many women Dusseldorp has spoken to during the play’s season at the Roslyn Packer Theatre.
“She wants a relationship that is holistic, and that’s something we all aspire to. I’ve been married for 14 years now and I feel that holistic connection to my husband [writer and director Benjamin Winspear]. It’s body and mind and spirit. But sadly, for Hester, her first relationship was all about the spirit and the mind and the second all about the body.
“She’s grown up defined by her relationship to the men in her life and I’ve seen that in some of my friends over the years, people going through break-ups and betrayals in their partnerships and who are quite lost. They’ll find themselves of course, but there’s always that moment – and I’ve felt it myself – where you think, what am I without this person?
“There are so many lines in the play where I think to myself, I know that moment exactly’.”
West End drama
One of the most psychologically complex portraits of a woman of its period, The Deep Blue Sea was in part inspired by a tragic incident in the playwright’s own life. In 1949, Rattigan’s former ex-lover Kenneth Morgan took his own life, apparently frustrated by Rattigan’s emotional coldness after their separation.
Once the initial shock subsided, Rattigan began to process his feelings in the form of a play that begins with the haunting image of a woman lying unconscious before an unlit gas fire. Rattigan went on to describe The Deep Blue Sea as “the hardest of my plays to write”.
Starring Peggy Ashcroft as Hester, the play was a significant West End and Broadway hit but like many plays of that era, it was quickly deemed unfashionable at a time when British stages were being swept by a new wave of middle class and regional voices.
The Deep Blue Sea didn’t receive a significant revival until 1993.
In 2011, Terence Davies directed a film version of the play featuring Rachel Weisz, Simon Russell Beale and Tom Hiddleston.
Paige Rattray, director of the current Sydney Theatre Company production, saw the 2016 National Theatre staging in London (with Helen McCrory as Hester) and decided to put it forward for inclusion into the STC’s 2020 season, Dusseldorp explains.
“Paige sent the script to me and said she couldn’t imagine anyone else doing it, which was incredibly kind of her,” Dusseldorp says. “But I had to read it a couple of times before I decided to say yes to the project because I wanted to convince myself that it was still relevant and that the story had a need to be told right now.
“It grabbed me slowly,” says Dusseldorp. “Now I’m really glad I said yes to it. I think some of the words being said in this play are incredibly important to hear right now. A lot of women have contacted us to say thank you for this story.”
A new theatre
The Deep Blue Sea is Dusseldorp’s first play for Sydney Theatre Company in a decade. Her small screen success over the past decade, including Janet King and A Place to Call Home, and the ABC’s new drama series Stateless, have kept her away from the stage more than she would like.
Live theatre remains her passion, Dusseldorp says. So much so that she’s created a theatre company, Archipelago Productions, in Hobart, where she and Winspear now live.
“I saw the scene down there and I thought it would be great to be a part of it and help invigorate the new theatre that’s just been built down there – the Hedburg, which is a $100m facility right next to the Theatre Royal.”
In May, Dusseldorp will feature in the company’s first co-production, a staging of Angus Cerini’s black comic drama of domestic abuse and vengeance, The Bleeding Tree, which premiered at Griffin Theatre.
“Domestic abuse is something we really need to keep talking about and I see this as a contribution to keeping that conversation going,” says Dusseldorp. “We have Annabel Crabb coming down to run a panel on domestic violence and we’re working to link up with other groups working in that space and with government. We want the work we do to make a difference.”
The Deep Blue Sea plays the Roslyn Packer Theatre until March 7
The Bleeding Tree plays the Theatre Royal, Hobart, May 8-16