Miss Havisham’s Expectations takes Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations and focuses in on the much-maligned Miss Havisham (Linda Marlowe), often seen merely as a manipulative jilted bride. The play asks us to look beyond that depiction into the inner life and deeper motivations of Miss Havisham, and, although it does that with varying success throughout, no audience member will leave with quite the same view of her that they entered with.
The sparse stage furniture is dominated by a ghostly clear plastic table, painted with the stopped clocks and abandoned plates that are so prevalent in the novel’s imagery, and a screen, onto which are projected various images throughout the play – starting off with Charles Dickens’ portrait. The play opens with a radio news report on the fire at Miss Havisham’s home, a confusing touch that does appear to have much bearing on the rest of the play, but the moment of disorientation that it brings is soon forgotten with the arrival of Miss Havisham, who addresses the audience directly, introducing them to the story of her life.
Miss Havisham’s Expectations is not a play to shy away from the meta. She freely talks about Dickens, mockingly describing him as ‘Sir Dick’ throughout, discussing his life, his wife, and the ultimate failure of Dickens’ women. He, she tells, just did not understand them. Dickens is presented as the creator whose rule she must escape, and the casually anachronistic language helps present this attempt as successful. It gives the impression of a character who has transcended her written role and is truly with us, the audience, in the future.
Miss Havisham makes it clear to us that, in telling this story, the past her she presents is playing a role, and Marlowe does an excellent job of flicking between revenge-driven witch, heartbroken bride-to-be and the far more flippant tone of the narrator, who is far more real than those textual roles, only entering it for brief moments. The play is too quick to leap to humour at times, however, and it is the scenes of genuine sorrow near the end that ring the truest, seeming more permanent and heartfelt than any of the playacting that precede them. When Miss Havisham is struck dumb by the magnitude of what she has done to Pip, the failure of speech – after a play filled with articulate loquaciousness – is incredibly moving, and Marlowe plays the scene with great realism and effectiveness.
Marlowe’s physicality is also one of the most striking things about her performance. Miss Havisham’s supernatural possession of both Estella and Pip is shown through costume, but it is believable because of the way Marlowe inhabits those younger characters. At one point her dancing becomes frantic, wild, simultaneously a mockery of the vitality of youth and an energetic physicality that defies age as she becomes Estella.
The stage is largely kept simple, and this works, allowing it to become the location for any number of schemes and memories. In fact, it is the times when prop usage becomes more complicated that things start to go a little awry – as with the magic tricks, which, although potentially effective, did go a little wrong, rescued in part by Marlowe’s endearing improvisation, which had the audience completely on her side. The projected clips of different characters near the end – including Estella, and Oliver Twist’s Bill Sykes – does not particularly work, and would have been better with just a voiceover, or a greater reliance on Marlowe’s capable acting to conjure them up in our imaginations.
Overall, Miss Havisham’s Expectations is a play with some brilliant moments, and some excellent ideas, that do not quite manage to come together particularly coherently. It takes a character who we “never want to meet, or be, or dream of”, and the familiar scenes from the novel, and it transforms them, adding additional layers of motivation and thought, and granting a spiritual and mental freedom that Dickens never gave her. She may never be Dickens’ best-loved character, too wrapped up in her plots and her past, but, as she says, after the way she has been treated, “who am I to be kind?”