The original production of The Deep Blue Sea opened in 1952 at the Duchess Theatre in London. Based in part on the tragic outcome of Rattigan’s own love affair, the play created one of the finest leading roles for a woman. We spoke to director Paul Foster about what makes that role so interesting and why he wanted to direct this play.
What attracted you to this play?
I’ve always loved it. It has so much to tell us about the workings of the human heart. There’s so much that’s held back and damped down, unsaid. That’s great for actors because there’s an element of surface control but beneath it there’s so much passion and turmoil. It’s a gripping story, as well as an extremely moving one. I can’t wait to start.
Hester Collyer is often hailed as one of the finest leading roles for a woman – what is it about Hester that makes her so interesting?
Her complexity. It’s a real workout for an actress. She has this well-bred, composed demeanour which masks the fact that her world has been turned upside down by the strength of her passion for this younger man. She battles with what the conventions of the time expect and demand of her and the competing claim of her sexual hunger for Freddie. You look at the parts which women are so often asked to play – and they’re usually the adjunct of a man who is more central to the plot. Here, Rattigan has Hester, her self-identity and her dilemma be the engine of the whole narrative. People are viewed in relation to her. She is the first and the last person we see; we root for her and trace the course of her journey. Peggy Ashcroft, who created the role in the premiere, said that she felt like she was “walking around with no clothes on.” The play is so unflinching in its revelations of the human heart and so compassionate about the anatomisation of the soul. Nancy Carroll, one of our most subtle and superb performers, is perfectly placed to embody a Hester for our times.
Have you directed any of the cast before?
I worked with Hadley Fraser on a concert version of The Light Princess last summer at Cadogan Hall and we had a good shorthand. I was in a student play with Nancy Carroll over twenty years ago, but beyond that - no. The company are each so brilliantly talented. The strength in depth is incredible. Helena Wilson has just been nominated for the Ian Charleson Award. She came in to audition for the role of Ann Welch and just blew us away.
The play takes place over the course of one day; does this present challenges?
I suppose the challenge is to pace the action so that it is cumulative and that the tension and the audience interest don’t ebb away. It’s a detailed collaboration with myself, sound, set, costume, lighting and music to ensure that the tone and mood are always involving. The time frame is very focusing, though, for the actors – it’s a real bell jar.
The Minerva is quite an intimate space, is that a help or a hindrance for this play?
I’m thrilled that Daniel Evans has programmed it for the Minerva. To me, that’s the perfect space for the play. Hester’s really meant to have gone down in the world, living “in sin” in this Blitz-damaged area of NW London, in arrears with the rent, after a married life of comfort in Eaton Square. I also think that the claustrophobia which can be generated in a small space is considerable and will really help with the through-the-keyhole voyeurism of the piece.