“You wiped the floor with me!” Tamsin Greig and Oliver Chris have a row with Rattigan

On May 8, 1956, Terence Rattigan stood outside the Royal Court Theater in London after the opening night of a revolutionary new drama. This was not one of his own plays, but a breakdown of the upstart generation: John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. Or, as the veteran playwright bitterly put it: Look how different Terence Rattigan I am. Sophistication was out, the Angry Young Man was in, and the author of Separate Tables and The Winslow Boy had fallen from grace.

But that all changed in 1993 – with Karel Reisz’s revival of The Deep Blue Sea, Rattigan’s most poignant work. Penelope Wilton played Hester Collyer, who is divorced from her husband, a primitively patriarchal Supreme Court judge. She now lives in sin with her younger lover, rowdy ex-RAF pilot Freddie Page. The play opens with Hester’s listless body being discovered by her neighbors. She tried to gas herself after Freddie didn’t return for her birthday. (She would have succeeded if there had been enough coins in the meter.) The rest of the day, and the game, is spent raking the trash of her life. Freddie walks in unknowingly; her husband tries to lure her back to the marital home; and the enigmatic former Doctor Miller urges her to “get on with living.”

Peggy Ashcroft said she felt like she had no clothes on when she played the role of Hester

Tamsin Greig, who will play Hester in a new production at the age of 57, saw Reisz’s version when she started as an actor. “I was blown away,” says Greig, as he eats a salad sandwich in a church hall during a break from rehearsals. Next to her is Oliver Chris, her 45-year-old co-star from the surreal hospital sitcom Green Wing, who plays Freddie. “It was so fascinating,” Greig marvels. “Penelope gave such a deep performance.”

Previous generations had marveled at Hester, who combines formidable intelligence with delusions, and views others with clarity from her own fog of shame. (Every night before the late Helen McCrory took the stage in a 2016 revival, she listened to Amy Winehouse’s You Know I’m No Good.) The character was inspired by Rattigan’s ex-lover, the actor Kenneth Morgan, who had left for another man, only to gas himself when that new relationship fell apart. Rattigan, distraught when he heard of Morgan’s death, was making a drama out of it that same evening. He was heard saying to himself: “The play begins with the body being found dead in front of the gas fireplace.”

The Deep Blue Sea premiered three years later, in March 1952. The original Hester, Peggy Ashcroft, worried that she couldn’t possibly make her character sympathetic. The Observer critic Ivor Brown wrote that Hester “needs a good slap or an honest talk with a marriage guidance expert”. Times are changing. Contemporary critics admired the traces of Racine and of Greek tragedy in Wilton’s performance. Michael Billington of The Guardian said Ashcroft showed Hester “painfully aware of the humiliating cost of her fixation” on Freddie, calling the role “one of the 20th century’s best theater roles for a woman”.

Greig, who has short, choppy silver hair and wears a powder blue sweater, weighs the challenges of a 21st century approach. “Peggy Ashcroft said it felt like she had no clothes on when she played the role. I think we’re in a slightly different place now. If we not When we take the clothes off, literally or psychologically, people feel a little cheated. It’s about how you can be discovered while still hiding something.”

She and Chris, who is busy trying not to spill his chicken, wrap his navy blue sweater, are best known for their comedy. Greig has starred in some of the funniest sitcoms of the last 25 years – not just Green Wing but also Black Books, Episodes and Friday Night Dinner – while Chris’ credits include the West End and Broadway runs of One Man, Two Guvnors. They last appeared on stage together in 2017’s gender-fluid Twelfth Night: Greig was Malvolia in a witch’s black wig, Chris a boisterous, boxing Orsino.

Although you wouldn’t necessarily recognize it from Terence Davies’ austere 2011 film The Deep Blue Sea, starring Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston, there is biting laughter in Rattigan’s text, which crackles with gallows or gas leak humor. “It is funny,” agrees Greig. “The humor is a coping mechanism. It makes you wonder: What’s under the tip of that iceberg?”

She mentions a funny exchange in the Lyme Regis piece, which causes Chris to sound grumpy. ‘I don’t think I’ll make it each laughs at this,” he says. “And if anyone else does that, I’ll take them down.”

“If someone looks like they’re laughing, I tell them, ‘Stop!’” Greig assures him.

“That’s it,” says Chris. “‘Stop! You don’t know what he’s like!”

Greig is enthusiastic about the idea: “He’s tall, but he’s vulnerable.” Then she thinks for a moment. “Fragile because long?”

“You hit the nail on the head,” says Chris.

Their banter is almost constant: he teases Greig for nibbling her lunch “like an Edwardian countess”, while she draws attention to his Trevor Howard-style haircut. When they met at the Groene Vleugel twenty years ago, things were very different. Although Chris had appeared on The Office, he felt “very intimidated by all these comedy people”. He turns to Greig: “During our improvisations you wiped the floor with me! I threw you duff ball after duff ball.”

“The strange thing for me now,” she says, “is that I have to be passionate – while Ollie and I are messing around in our other jobs. I’ve reached the age where you think, ‘Oh, that kind of acting isn’t necessary anymore. I just have to be scary or controlling.” But playing Hester is about being vulnerable, but also about being the object of desire. It’s about showing your gut.”

All this silliness leaves you completely unprepared for their rigorous approach to Rattigan’s text. When asked about its staying power, their focus immediately sharpens. “These are modern ideas that he focuses on,” says Greig. “This thing of being kind to yourself, ‘living your best life’ as we say now. Hester asks if criminals can escape punishment and Miller says, “Yes, if the judge is fair—and not blind with hatred for the criminal—as you are for yourself.” That is a very modern view of self-care.”

‘Do you think Hester is both the main character And the opponent?” Chris asks.

“Haha! Yes!” exclaims Greig. “It’s like that psychotherapeutic view of dreams, which says that every character is you.”

“She has to win the battle,” Chris says. “Maybe that’s why Peggy Ashcroft had a hard time being unsympathetic. What she may have discovered is that Hester is at war with herself.’

Greig asks Chris where that leaves his character, Freddie. “It’s complicated,” he says, his eyebrows furrowing. “At first glance you see someone who is irresponsible and childish, deep down, unable to function in society and in this relationship. But even as Freddie gets increasingly drunk, there are points where he makes a pretty good argument. He is also imprisoned. He’s having a hard time.”

Freddie’s reaction to accidentally discovering his lover’s suicide note is to storm out and slosh. “Suicide is part of the play,” Chris admits. “But think of the impact that has in the real world. This man has come home to find that the woman he loves has tried to commit suicide, probably because he forgot her birthday. That will send even a reasonable person into a spiral.

“Look, I don’t have a big connection with suicide, but when I was a kid, my best friend from kindergarten and grade school – we’ve grown apart since then – committed suicide at the age of 16. What I remember from the funeral is his parents’ anger. His father gave the eulogy and so he did angry. So there is that impact. The idea that Freddie has been on the receiving end of a near miss and is going to blow up all the sludge, ash, and cinders of everything. Then he reaches for whatever is there – and it’s a bottle.”

At one point, Freddie throws a shilling on the table so that Hester’s next suicide attempt will not fail. Greig argues that even this seemingly insensitive act is more complex than it seems. “I think it’s about choices,” she says. ‘He leaves the coin behind. Miller gives her the sleeping tablets. There’s a bottle of whiskey, a bottle of wine. They challenge each other. “These are the things you’ve been using – and I challenge you to see that.” Miller says it at the end: it is Hester who has the power to choose.

Chris seems grateful for Greig’s advocacy for his character. “I feel defensive about poor old Freddie,” he says. “He literally spells it all out: If someone loves you a certain way, and you can’t return the affection, what are you supposed to do?”

“That’s the human condition,” says Greig. “We all love differently. The question is: ‘How do we live with that?’”

• The Deep Blue Sea is at the Ustinov Studio, Theater Royal, Bath until June 1.

• In Great Britain and Ireland, you can contact Samaritans on freephone 116 123, or by email jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In the US, you can call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988, chat at 988lifeline.org, or text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis counselor. In Australia, the crisis support service is Lifeline 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org

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