The Recs: Review of HAVISHAM

Havisham ★★★★★

Heather Alexander’s one-woman show, Havisham, offers a fresh perspective of Charles Dickens’ iconic Great Expectations character

With the recent allegations of sexual assault and emotional abuse levied against Russell Brand fresh in the public consciousness, it seems unlikely that a monodrama exploring the untold back story of a Dickensian character would have so much contemporary resonance. And yet Heather Alexander‘s compelling, feminist Havisham couldn’t feel more timely. 

The abiding image of Miss Havisham in Dickens’ Great Expectations is of a woman neither living or dead, but frozen in time at the moment of her greatest trauma. Jilted at the altar, she remains in the decaying mansion Satis House, with the wedding breakfast and rotting wedding cake in front of her, forever nurturing her unappeasable desolation. While she remains an eidolic presence in the book, Heather Alexander truly brings her to life in this self-penned work.

While Dickens sketched out the skeleton of Havisham’s history in his classic novel, this engrossing production puts flesh on the bones and allows the character to be a fully-rounded, living and breathing person. Without a mother, she is brought up in a world dominated and manipulated by men. Her father may be wealthy but is uncaring towards the young Havisham, leaving her to be brought up by the servants. This situation worsen with the birth of her needy, illegitimate brother. And so begins a painful, confusing journey into adulthood – enduring abuse and violation at the hands of the church and local men. Alexander plays the younger Havisham with such conviction, the audience wills the character to find her voice and to be able to express the “No” she yearns to say. 

The stage setting is simple and effective: just some crates, white sheets and a small wooden two-step ladder which are moved to create a dining room table, a doorway, church pews etc. It could be argued that the production might be stripped back even further, some create choreography occasional taking the audience out of the story. Where the minimal set works incredibly effectively is the use of the two-step ladder. In the telling of her first traumatic event, she steps up on the ladder to look down on herself, symbolically creating a disassociation from her body and what is happening to her. 

Heather Alexander gives a compelling performance of Havisham at different ages, complete with increasing psychological scars. Both in her writing and performance, she controls the underlying rhythms of the text with almost a musician’s ear for the innate expressiveness of any given situation. Even with the lightness conferred from Compeyson’s arrival, the gradual extinguishing of the sense of hope that Havisham may have a happy ending is marked by the dialogue becoming increasingly staccato.

Perhaps the most lingering impression of the play is the chilling symbolism of how Medusa is perceived throughout the show. When the 9-year old Havisham is asked by her school teacher to draw an angel, she copies a drawing in a book of what she perceives as a beautiful woman. It turns out that she has drawn Medusa who she then is informed is a “bad woman” and “a woman who was cursed”. Later, unable to comprehend this, she reads the accompanying story where a lustful Poseidon tried to seduce Medusa in the temple of Athena. When Medusa resisted, he rapes her. When the young Havisham asks her teacher what “lust” and “rape” means, the cursory reply is that it’s a thing “that bad men do to bad women”.  If you remember, the Medusa myth continues with the young woman being punished by the goddess Athena for violating her temple. Being turned into “a monster” for the things men have done to her, the story of Medusa finds a perfect parallel for the Havisham depicted in this play – and indeed in a more contemporary parallel, with the women who have come forward to make the allegations towards Russell Brand being demonised in some quarters. 

In short, Heather Alexander’s Havisham, by reframing the classic character’s story, speaks as much to the treatment of women in the present as it does to her Dickensian past. 

Havisham was reviewed at Bridge House Theatre, Penge in September 2023 

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