Love tears Helen McCrory apart in 'The Deep Blue Sea'

In this image made available by the National Theatre on Friday Aug. 19, 2016, actress Helen McCrory during rehearsal for the production of "The Deep Blue Sea". You might not think there's much overlap between Amy Winehouse and the work of playwright Terence Rattigan, chronicler of upper-crust British stiff upper lips. But the late diva was one of the influences Helen McCrory mines for her searing performance in Rattigan's play "The Deep Blue Sea" (Richard Hubert Smith/National Theatre via AP)

You might not think there's much overlap between Amy Winehouse and the work of playwright Terence Rattigan, chronicler of upper-crust British stiff upper lips

LONDON — You might not think there's much overlap between Amy Winehouse and the work of playwright Terence Rattigan, chronicler of upper-crust British stiff upper lips.

But the troubled diva is one of the influences behind Helen McCrory's searing performance in Rattigan's play "The Deep Blue Sea " as a well-off woman who leaves her husband to live — in sin and shame, since it's the 1950s — with a younger man.

The sold-out National Theatre production, screened live in movie theaters around the world starting Sept. 1, is the latest sign of the renaissance of Rattigan, who was one of Britain's most successful playwrights between the 1930s and the 1950s before falling out of fashion with the rise of a younger generation of "Angry Young Men."

By the time he died in 1977, Rattigan was seen as safe and staid. But the subject matter of "The Deep Blue Sea" is pretty sensational. When the curtain rises, Hester Collyer has just tried to kill herself in front of her gas fire. She's trapped between her dutiful High Court Judge husband and her feckless lover Freddie Page, a former World War II fighter pilot sinking into peacetime alcoholism.

"Rattigan was writing about suicide, and was writing about being trapped in unhappy relationships, and was writing about what happens when you go mad with love," McCrory said. Yet Hester "is usually played very buttoned-up."

McCrory says she was determined to find "a more sensual approach."

"This woman's run away from a life in (posh) Eaton Square because of the passion she feels for a man half her age," McCrory said over afternoon coffee in London. "So, actually, let's look at people like Amy Winehouse. Let's look at people who were addicted to men. Who did crazy, awful, self-destructive things for a passion that they seemed to have absolutely no ability to wrestle with.

"We see it again and again in history ... women who were brilliant in their own right but just subjugated themselves for love."

The anguish of unrequited love is a feeling many women and men can relate to. Rattigan, writing at a time when homosexuality was illegal in Britain, based the play partly on his relationship with a man who later killed himself.

McCrory has won raves in director Carrie Cracknell's production for her intense and nuanced performance as a woman who knows she has abandoned dignity and good sense, but can't help herself.

The Daily Telegraph called it "a commendably quiet performance," and that's typical of McCrory. Quietly and without fuss, the 48-year-old has become one of Britain's most respected actresses with a succession of formidable or fearsome women. She was Voldemort ally Narcissa Malfoy in the "Harry Potter" series, gangland matriarch Polly Gray in BBC drama "Peaky Blinders" and vengeful Greek heroine "Medea" onstage at the National.

Offstage, she's half of an acting power couple with husband Damian Lewis, the former star of "Homeland." McCrory says raising their two children while balancing acting careers requires a "lot of organizing."

"The more we do it, the better we get at it," she said.

In the fall, Lewis will be filming another series of Showtime's financial-shenanigans drama "Billions" in the U.S., while McCrory takes the lead in the new British series "Fearless." Written by "Homeland" executive producer Patrick Harbinson, it's about a human-rights lawyer who takes on a seemingly local case that turns out to have global repercussions.

McCrory says the series explores the idea "that country boundaries are no longer delineated as they were even in the 60s and 70s." It's partly inspired by "Prime Suspect," the 1990s detective series that starred Helen Mirren as Scotland Yard detective Jane Tennison.

Like Tennison, McCrory's Emma Blunt is "a maverick female character who's very strong but slightly outside the profession, and is driven, and is involved in international politics."

While many performers struggle to find meaty female roles in film and television, McCrory says she can't complain.

"Having said that, there are a lot of things I turn down" — the sort of roles where "all your lines are 'But what did you do at work?' That's so clever, darling.' 'How did you do that?' 'And then what did you do?'"

McCrory has a confidence she attributes to her upbringing. She spent some of her childhood in Africa, where her father was a British diplomat, far from Western advertising and surrounded by strong matriarchal influences.

"It never really occurred to me, number one that I couldn't do anything a man could do; and number two that I had to alter my behavior in any way to do it," she said. "And that's sort of continued in my outlook.

"Of course there's so much sexism within the profession. But I think you approach it in different ways, and my approach is just to forge forward."

"The Deep Blue Sea" is broadcast by National Theatre Live on Sept. 1 in Britain and Oct. 6 in the U.S. and internationally, with repeat screenings on various dates.

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Follow Jill Lawless on Twitter at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless

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