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Fringe Review: Playing Miss Havisham

Playing Miss Havisham

Reviewed by Richard Thomson

Playing Miss Havisham
Willow Productions
Circa Two (Bookings: 04 01 7992)
Fri 17 February – Sat 4 March
Tues–Sat, 7pm, Sun 4.30pm (80 minutes)
Full $28, Concession $22. Six or more $20


In Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, Miss Havisham is the elderly woman who has spent 30 years shrivelling in a draughty mansion after being jilted at the altar by a scoundrel.

In one sense this is a caustic statement about the nature of marriage – the power of the institution is such that the husband need not even exist for his would-be wife to be encased for the rest of her life in a virginal, empty white space, unable to maintain contact with the outside world.

That's not quite where Playing Miss Havisham takes us. Claudia lives near Christchurch with her husband Alan, a farm accountant. Their son Ben is somewhere up in the North Island playing in a band. Alan is planning to go on safari, Cape Town to the Nile; Claudia is auditioning for the part of Miss Havisham in a movie of the novel, to be shot in Wellington.

Clearly, marriage has lost some of the institutional heft it enjoyed early in the nineteenth century. Miss Havisham and her non-marriage have almost mythological status now, but this play also shows how – even in rural Canterbury – the force of convention has waned in the last 30 years. The parallels work because even if there is something faintly ridiculous about a middle-aged Pakeha woman's obsession with Miss Havisham as a metaphor for her frustrated marriage, from today's perspective the reasons for Claudia's own plight seem rather sad and unnecessary.

As Claudia, Helen Moulder evokes a very particular world, a very white New Zealand clinging to the frontier of Western consciousness, where London became the great possibility. She does it superbly, too, pacing the stage between Richard Mapp's piano and the voluminous layers of a white white wedding dress.

So far so very exact: comedy with a delightfully playful self-consciousness. Claudia's moment of crisis comes when she is in character on the movie set, and succeeds in turning cheerfully over-wrought melodrama into raw, compelling theatre.

That would have been enough, so it was a pity so much time had to be spent tidying up loose ends. This is a comedy, so improbable coincidences and neatly sewn-up subplots are standard, but they also made the last part of the play rather drawn out. And call me cynical, but the suggestion that part of Claudia's epiphany results from a brush with Maori spirituality is Pakeha myth-making on a par with teenaged idealisations of a white wedding.

Perhaps, though, we must take our myths where we can find them.

*********

SCOOP FULL COVERAGE: Festival 2006

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