Havisham – Upstairs At The Gatehouse, London

Reviewer: John Cutler

Writer: Heather Alexander

Director: Dominique Gerrard

Does Miss Havisham really need more of a backstory than Dickens gives her in Great Expectations? The crazy, revenge-seeking, one-shoed, harridan who lives in a decrepit country pile and wears her old wedding dress every day of her life, though memorable, has always been a tad too gothic to be credible. One either accepts her grotesque estrangement from any feeling of common humanity, or one does not, backstory notwithstanding.

Heather Alexander’s tightly penned and affectionately performed single-hander Havisham offers up a Victorian version of the Medusa myth (or at least the Medusa myth as reclaimed by feminist writers and artists) to explain the mad old lady’s plight. It is cleverly done, aided by splendid direction from Dominique Gerrard, but you may end up asking yourself ‘What’s the point?’.

“From the beginning?” Miss Havisham (Heather Alexander performs as well as writes) grudgingly enquires when the ethereal spirit of erstwhile love James Compeyson asks her to recount her tale. In the book Havisham’s existence is distinguished by a single traumatic event: her jilting by Compeyson on what was to have been the day of their wedding. Alexander takes us right back to the character’s infancy and sees her nuptial abandonment as the final indignity in a lifetime of traumatic betrayal.

Having lost a mother to malaria. the infant Havisham grows up in the wilds of the Kent marshes with snarling servants and a drunken brewery-owning father who, she tells us, “brews more resentment than ale”. Aged 4, terrified of a fire-and-brimstone priest, she wets herself in church and learns “not to take up space”. At 7, solitary, bullied by the village children and isolated from a distant, demeaning dad, she begins to detach: to look on herself from outside or “to unbecome” as she puts it.

At 12 Havisham asks her teacher, whom she loves, “What is lust?”. The answer convinces the child she is bad, flawed, and immoral. At 14 she is raped yet chooses to bear the burden in silence. The subsequent child, whom she names Estella, is stillborn. This is a character steeped in a veritable vat of unresolved trauma. “I learnt not to speak my truth,” she tells us (a trifle anachronistically perhaps) and lives her life in a world of fantasy.

At 17 things look up a little. Her father having died, Havisham moves in with Aunt Clemmie, a “known adventuress” and all-round London party animal. She begins a course in Classics at King’s College (references to Greek mythology abound throughout) where she meets the intriguing Compeyson, who promises to “unclench her mind” and labels her “a sister sorceress to Medusa”.

Alexander tracks Havisham’s journey from guileless, oppressed child to brutalised adult with both energy and empathy. If the tightly drawn narrative always threatens melodrama, Alexander’s performance, aside from an occasional over-emphatic tic of the hands and flick of the hair, never crosses the line. This is a powerful, nuanced turn that brings us a smart, likeable character gradually suffocating under the accumulated burden of endless suffering.

Does Havisham leave us with the conclusion that the titular persona’s insanity is a rational (or merely explicable) response to the events of her life? Opinions will vary. You may just conclude she is just a batty old lady who is living life entirely on her own terms and whose backstory does not necessarily need further elucidation. Contextualising her life within the context of Greek myth certainly brings out the tragic nature of her plight, but one wonders what else it adds here. By happenstance, Emma Burnell’s Venom, recently seen at the Golden Goose Theatre, addresses the same kind of feminist reimagination of the Medusa story.

Gerrard’s direction is packed with movement and energy without feeling contrived or intrusive. Lighting and sound are both spot-on too, as is the simple but effective staging: wooden packing cases, ghostly white sheets and, of course, the clock on the wall stopped at the very minute the character learns of her betrayal.

Runs until 19 November 2023

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Miss Havisham writ large.

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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