Reviews from the World Premier of HAVISHAM from Brighton Fringe 2023
What if a defining event is merely a culmination?
Heather Alexander’s Havisham – which she wrote and features in, with direction and dramaturgy by Dominique Gerrard – opens at The Rotunda Theatre’s Squeak, the smaller of its two bubble-tents (the other is in fact called Bubble).
That culmination is famously Miss Havisham’s of Dickens’ 1861 Great Expectations. Though what if she had suffered a pattern of abuse rendering her act – refusing to move for decades from the mouldering wedding breakfast where she was jilted– a wholly rational response?
And what if that jilting was almost as long brewing? What if it’s far closer to home than you can possibly imagine? For the intricacy and care Havisham is plotted, as a casebook of ‘stuck trauma’, where someone re-enacts the hurt they grew in.
Alexander emerges from tat wedding dress and a long white shroud suggesting a banqueting cloth, and emerges as a child of four peeing herself with fright at the brimstone sermon, losing her doll, continually slighted by her absent father, her younger brother eventually vanishing.
Havisham desperately tries to win the love of her teacher, but instead of drawing an angle has been told she’s sketched Medusa instead. And words like “lust” and “rape” are for bad women. By now at nine, the young girl has begun to die inside.
Her mother long dead, Havisham then undergoes at fourteen another horrifying experience, underscoring Medusa as her sister. Her father banishing her to London, the young woman briefly flourishes at King’s College London under her aunt’s patronage: it’s a fresh start, anything is possible. A dull oil lamp flicks to neon.
Then Havisham meets a strolling young student player: Compeyson, her nemesis. With her father dying, Havisham experiences things Dickens might never have countenanced, is played for reasons only a letter makes clear at 8.30am at that breakfast.
To elaborate would enact spoilers. Repeat events calibrate Havisham’s trauma, with a compelling instrumentation of motive and how it impacts like a series of blows: both in her conscious registering of them, and bewilderment as to a more occult, unforeseeable hand appearing random – and acting on the real, often defining randomness that becomes a pattern in itself. Is she really damned, as the child later called Havisham feared, when four years old?
Havisham is a tightly plotted work, with Alexander mimicking different ages, and in a sound system enacting other voices – male and female, a child’s. Alexander herself moves crates around enacting Ionic columns on a rich townhouse, beds, firm desks, sones in a churchyard. Few other props are needed.
The greatest scene-painter though is Alexander’s voice. Answering those disembodied ones, including her own, Alexander grows her years from a childish wonder, to fear, through brief ecstatic girlhood then crushed spirit, brief florescence, a young mordant but reborn character. Each iteration though carries previous damage. A chink of light then the tincture of happiness slides shut, like one of the tombs Havisham thinks she sees her mother in; and the broken-winged angels fall face-down in the mud.
As ever with Alexander, this is a masterclass in acting. It’s also a masterclass in directing and technical address: lighting is spot-on, atmosphere is pinpoint. Sound, a low freakish whoosh, is equally fine, not at all compromised by rough winds rippling Squeak outside. There’s inevitably a limit in the staging of an hour-long show in a tent needing clearance in 15 minutes after the show.
Nevertheless, within the confines of a pop-up tent, you can’t ask for more. The outstanding one-person show of the Fringe so far, it’s only just begun over six months of touring, including Edinburgh, Hastings, Petworth and London. Do see it.
Published May 12, 2023 by Simon Jenner
So you think you know Great Expectations’ Miss Havisham? Think again!
Emul8 Theatre brings an extremely bold and fresh new viewpoint to an iconic Dickens’ character, who vows revenge on all mankind after being abandoned on her wedding day. In this version, we never get to see Pip or her ward Estelle, with the focus on her being forced to confront her past. How did she become the bitter, twisted person we have come to know so well? This is the question that the writer and performer of Havisham herself, Heather Alexander, asks. She, under the insightful direction of Dominique Gerrard, gets answers to the questions that are normally only hinted at.
Through Alexander’s complete immersion in this complex character, we see Havisham growing up in a world led by men that is at times confusing for the young girl as she experiences church, religion, literature and more whilst trying to find her place. With no mother to look after her, Alexander painstakingly shifts between the positively joyful young woman with limitless hope, due to inherit Sallis House, to the cold-hearted mistress we see in the original novel. Doing it this way highlights the fragile state Havisham has been left in, not only making all who see it understand why she becomes the way she is, but it gives the perfect amount of room to feel every single emotion that she feels, as the reflections become more and more difficult to handle. Alexander conveys these difficult emotions expertly without losing the essence of what Dickens originally created – especially through simple use of white sheets, wooden boxes and a book or two indicating her room, lost in her fantasy world, and her physicality as she shifts between a scared young girl trying to hide as she questions what being bad is and the stillness of a woman who is shut down emotionally.
A particular highlight is the symbolism of Havisham’s trauma in the Greek myth Medusa, which the young version of our heroine reads about, believing her an angel and drawing her for school homework. Medusa in the original myth was taken advantage of by a sea god and was unjustly punished for being ‘a bad person’, as she slept with him (the reality was she was raped). The transition between Havisham’s journey of being in love with Compeyson, to being taken advantage of by him again and again is so heartbreaking that she in turn becomes her own version of Medusa. A horrifying reality, yes, but one that Alexander’s sterling performance emphasizes, in turn encourages everyone to be on her side, empowering us to empathize in catharsis. This is a hard skill to achieve, but Alexander seems to unlock her own demons in Havisham, as well as her own angelic side and is a breathtaking sight to behold on stage.
Powerful, tense, heartbreaking.
Originally published on BroadwayBaby.com
4 Star THE STAGE Paul Vale ★★★★
“gorgeously written and packed with haunting imagery”
5 Star BROADWAY BABY ★★★★★
‘Powerful, tense, heart-breaking.’
5 Star WEBF ★★★★★
“This is a beautifully crafted piece of theatre, whether you are a fan of Dickens or not. The story stands strong alone.”
“a cobwebbed tale of heartbreak”
4 Star Theatre Weekly ★★★★
“Havisham stands out for its original and skillful narrative craft, as if characters and atmospheres were drawn from the pages of a literary piece, while simultaneously, opening a poignant contemplation on the power of trauma over the psyche and body of its sufferers.”
FRINGE REVIEW – Hidden Gem
‘As ever with Alexander, this is a masterclass in acting.’
4 Star Theatre Film and Arts Reviews ★★★★
‘Intriguing…the story intertwines smoothly…’