A CLASSIC OF THE DESPERATE HEART
“We’re death to one another, you and I”. The great cry from trapped, degraded macho Freddie, struggling to leave the desperate demanding Hester Collyer as she clings to his very shoes, marks a turning-point in what – as any fule kno – is one of Terence Rattigan’s greatest and most intimately felt plays. Her “Don’t leave me alone tonight!” rips through the air as the door slams. She has already tried suicide once.
That in the short second act she finally rejects tragedy is, again as Rattiganites know, wishful thinking from the playwright. The inspiration for Hester’s gas-fire attempt was the death in that way of his own ex-lover, Kenny Morgan: indeed currently at the Arcola is a fine play about him, echoing this.
That interval moment, on press night, saw me having to leave Carrie Cracknell’s new production for a pressing family need, so I may not in honesty offer a final rating. But it is one of Rufus Norris’ first wholly ‘classic’ productions in his NT tenure, and worth noting: so here is what we learn from its first longer half. Typically for Cracknell, it is done without unnecessary flourishes or updatings but with artful, revealing twists, an intense central performance, strong support and a powerful dramatic line.
The play consists of intense conversations in one room – Hester and Freddie, Hester and her abandoned husband the Judge, Freddie and his drinking friend Jack, landlady and neighbours, and not least the dry, mysterious struck-off German Jewish doctor Miller who is the emotional deus ex machina.
So Tom Scutt’s design of the seedy boarding-house uses the full width of the stage as characters move apart and together, and walls become transparent indicating the other lives beyond, to heighten the isolation of Hester. : Peter Rice’s low, sound design is another subtle, moody clue: the richness of production values draws in a cinema generation without losing vivid theatrical immediacy. When Freddie casually searches his lover’s dressing-gown pocket for cigarettes and the audience knows a certain note is there, there is an audible hissing sigh. It’s that good.
Helen McCrory’s Hester neatly indicates from the start the hopeless social back-story of a clergyman’s naive daughter who married a man too paternal and too straight, then fell for the seemingly lost overgrown schoolboy, the wartime pilot in aimless peacetime. It became for her “too big and confusing to be tied up in a parcel named lust”. Even in the earliest scenes as she is revived from the first attempt, her brittle civilities mark her class just as Freddie’s cheerful saloon-bar manner marks his. The sexual chemistry between them is electric, despite his obvious growing reluctance to succumb again to it. (“I can’t be a ruddy Romeo all the time”.) Tom Burke gives Freddie , too easily played as a heartless beast, a real conflicted identity, immature and trapped; Peter Sullivan as the judge is straight, not unattractive or unsympathetic: his angry plea for duty and “sanity” from the yearning Hester is the right kind of shock. Like the sardonic Miller he might well echo “Nature has not endowed me with a capacity for inspiring suicidal love”.
And there I must leave it. A fine production, all reports suggest that the last 45 minutes I missed were very fine, intense faithful to Rattigan’s anguish, search for redemptiveness, and ttransformation of his own life’ reality into one of those astonishing, perceptive portraits of women. Which, ironically, have been so often written lately by gay men: Rattigan, Coward, Tennessee Williams, Alan Bennett…there’s a thesis in that.
box office 020 7452 3000 http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk to 21 Sept