Brighton Fringe 2023
As ever with Heather Alexander, this is a masterclass in acting. It’s also a masterclass in directing and technical address. The outstanding one-person show of the Fringe so far
Direction and dramaturgy Dominique Gerrard. Set Props by Dominique Gerrard and Heather Alexander.
Till May 13th then touring to Hastings Fringe Stables July 29th , Edinburgh Fringe Zoo Playground 1st, 13-27th August inclusive, Petworth Fringe 28th September, Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Highgate 16-19th November
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.