Directed by Paige Rattray, this Sydney Theatre Company production of Terence Rattigan’s turbulent post-war drama begins in something like a dream: with a woman lying on the floor in a deep blue space, her face turned upstage.
It is as if she has drifted peacefully to the bottom of an ocean.
The reverie is broken within seconds as cast and crew manhandle walls, doors and windows into the space. The woman is enclosed.
We see now that the woman is prone in front of an unlit gas heater in dingy flat in Ladbroke Grove, London.
Alerted by the smell of gas, neighbours and landlady rouse the woman from slumbers that would have been had she not forgotten to put a shilling in the gas meter. It’s just the first in a series of tragicomic twists Rattigan imparts during the evening.
The woman is Hester Collyer (played here by Marta Dusseldorp), and this is the home she shares with her lover, Freddie Page (Fayssal Bazzi), the former RAF and test pilot with whom she fell in love and left a staid marriage for.
But the passion that characterised Hester and Freddie’s courtship is burned out now. Freddie is hitting the bottle when he’s not whacking golf balls at the same club they met. Unable to come to terms with his own predicament, Freddie can’t give Hester what she needs. Worse still, he knows it.
I can’t think of a more suitable actor than Dusseldorp to play Hester. Few are able to so convincingly convey desperation and elegance at the same time.
Rattigan’s wry humour is in safe hands here, too, especially when Hester is fobbing off her neighbours (played by Brandon McClelland and Contessa Treffone) and blabbermouth landlady Mrs Elton (Vanessa Downing), who, in true British style, are abuzz with the schadenfreude derived from seeing one’s social “betters” come to grief.
Bazzi sweeps away all the Spitfire pilot clichés immediately with a big, passionate performance. And while Matt Day doesn’t convey much in the way of judicial gravitas as Hester’s ex-husband (and High Court judge) Sir William, his reserved portrayal provides an effective counterpoint.
Paul Capsis proves a fascinating choice for the role of Miller, the struck-off doctor who administers on the sly while working as a bookie’s runner. The role is coded queer (as is the whole play; it is widely regarded to be inspired by a tragic incident in Rattigan’s own love life) but here Capsis plays it openly so in a performance that brings an almost otherworldly aspect to Miller’s character.
Rattray has de-Anglicised the script to some extent but Rattigan’s text remains anchored to its era. Laughter ripples at odd times because of it.
The production comes together more forcefully after interval, in two strong scenes between Hester and the men in her life and in an encounter with Miller, who helps her identify the flickering flame of her true self, which Rattray amplifies into a gently optimistic final image that sends you home satisfied, if not completely convinced that The Deep Blue Sea deserves its “masterpiece” status.