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Q&A: Director Terence Davies on The Deep Blue Sea | reviews, news & interviews

Q&A: Director Terence Davies on The Deep Blue Sea

Q&A: Director Terence Davies on The Deep Blue Sea

As Rattigan's centenary closes, the film director talks of transplanting him to the cinema

'The first person you see: that’s who it’s about': Terence Davies shoots 'The Deep Blue Sea'

The trajectory of Terence Rattigan’s standing finds two peaks separated by a deep trough. From the late Thirties to the mid Fifties, he gave a voice to a social class which liked to keep its feelings under lock and key. Then in 1956 Rattigan was occluded by the dazzling verbal incontinence of Jimmy Porter. In 1991 a production of The Deep Blue Sea at the Almeida starring Penelope Wilton rebooted his reputation.

His centenary amounts to another celebratory reassessment. Theatres small and large have been turning to the unvisited margins of Rattigan’s work. But Separate Tables and The Browning Version have had to play second fiddle to last year’s After the Dance at the National and Less Than Kind, Rattigan’s never properly performed wartime play, staged at the Jermyn Street Theatre. In the West End Trevor Nunn revived Flare Path, about Rattigan’s wartime experiences as a gunner, and the Old Vic brought back Cause Célèbre, his late play about a 1930s sex scandal. There has also been a television documentary and a new play about Rattigan by Nicholas Wright.

But in the end Rattigan's reputation is forever allied to The Deep Blue Sea, which tells of Hester Collyer, a woman married to a judge but in love with a pilot. It has been revived twice already this year, but as Rattigan's year comes to an end the final act takes place on the cinema screen to which Terence Davies has transplanted the play. He tells theartsdesk how he'd never heard of Rachel Weisz nor seen Simon Russell Beale on stage. 

JASPER REES: Why does this play by Rattigan still matter?

TERENCE DAVIES: What’s tragic and moving about The Deep Blue Sea is that each of these people wants a different kind of love than the other can give. I find that heartbreaking. The Deep Blue Sea is about the nature of love. Both men and women knew very little about sex in that period. Very often people went into marriage not having any idea what they were supposed to do. Now we know everything about it. Hester was probably attracted by the fact that her husband William was a very good lawyer, was cultured and kind and sympathetic. But then she meets this very attractive young man Freddie, she finds sexual love and she has to choose between the two.

It has something that modern Britain has lost: a dignified reticence about things. I find that much more moving than overtly emotional things which can always look a little bit meretricious (unless it’s by Tennessee Williams). There were an awful lot of terrible plays traipsing around the country in the 1950s: light comedies in the stockbroker belt with maids called Ethel. That kind of thing deserved to die. But Look Back in Anger has dated terribly. There is still something in Rattigan that isn’t dated. I would say it’s his humanity. Ultimately he does try not to judge, and that is very human. People aren’t good, bad or indifferent; they are all of those things. And it’s done with a generous heart. It goes a long way with me.

It has been revived twice this year as a play, in Leeds and Chichester. How have you ushered it across to an art form in which words don't always come first?

The Fifties didn’t feel as bleak as people make out

I was very worried at first about adapting the play. There’s a lot of talk. I said to Alan Brodie, who runs the Rattigan Trust, “I can’t be doing with all this exposition.” But once it’s all told from Hester’s point of view, all that can go, because we cannot hear or see anything to which she is not privy. If you try to kill yourself and it’s not worked and you’re half drugged and still groggy, isn’t it then only sensible and true to think about how you got there? It’s a linear narrative with memory moving in and out. How did she get there? Why is trying to kill herself? It’s a very simple device, laid down in the early grammar of silent film. The first person you see: that’s who it’s about.

And then it’s a question of getting the tone right. I know what the Fifties felt like, because I grew up there. It’s not just knowing what it looked like. I know what it felt like. That adds simply to the texture. When you have texture people respond to it emotionally and subliminally. The Fifties didn’t feel as bleak as people make out. You saw very little primary colour but when you went to see The Pajama Game in brilliant Technicolor, you didn’t come out thinking, aren’t we living in drab surroundings?

The Rattigan Trust have been incredibly supportive. Alan says, “You have caught the absolute essence of the play,” which is a real compliment, because I was radical with it and I didn’t want to betray its essential truth. But film is not like the theatre. It’s different and if it’s going to be a film it’s got to rethought. Otherwise you just photograph the play. What’s interesting about that? Nothing.

You have assembled quite a cast in Rachel Weisz, Simon Russell Beale (pictured above) and Tom Hiddleston (pictured right). What made you choose them in particular?

The casting was quite by accident. I don't see many films now because I can’t suspend my disbelief any more. And there’s all that acting to get through which is really dispiriting. I was watching television one night. Swept from the Sea by Beeban Kidron was on and I had missed the first 10 minutes. Rachel Weisz came on. I thought, God, who is this luminous girl? Wonderful eyes! I rang my casting director and said, “Have you heard of someone called Rachel Weisz?” He said, “Terence, you’re the only one that hasn’t.” Anyway, I sent it to her. She read it, she rang me, we talked. I said, “If you say no, I don’t know who I’ll give it to.” She said, “I’ll do it.” It wasn’t any kind of put down that I hadn’t heard of her. Honesty is the best policy, except when it’s unkind. But you have to be open with your actors. Rachel said to me, “When I saw House of Mirth I was bored to tears. I saw it again last year. I just sobbed all the way through it.”

I’d never seen Simon Russell Beale act because I don’t go to the theatre that much, but I’d seen his programme on sacred music and I thought, hasn’t he got a lovely face and a lovely voice? I sent it to him. He came in and read a sonnet for me and I said, “Will you do it?” He said “Yes.” I had to see a lot of people for Freddie but when he came in the room you could just tell. I can still remember the first bit we did. I said, “Can you just come in and throw yourself on the sofa.” It’s amazing how few actors can do that with any kind of conviction. He just did it.

Both men and women knew very little about sex in that period. Now we know everything about it

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