John Shaw, May 2008
Theatre goers in Texas were treated to a most amazing performance by
Helen Moulder in ‘Playing Miss Havisham’ on 25 June.
Helen not only played the part of Claudia and Miss Havisham,
but also various members of Claudia’s family and other characters around whom the action revolves.
But, the audience did not see Helen playing all those characters, they saw the characters themselves. Thus, we actually met Miss Havisham and Claudia and her Ted Bullpit type husband and Uncle Frank. Helen drew on her extensive talent as an actor to adopt the stance, voice, movement and facial expression of the character of the moment. Her tactic in passing round photos created a real bond with the audience, as did the creation of a spider web.
The Queensland Arts Council is to be congratulated for bringing to Regional Queensland such a magnificent example of theatrical art. Helen’s singing, her ability to portray humour and pathos, fear and fury, awe and familiarity, brought the story alive .. The superb use of music and lighting, particularly the torch, created just the right effect.
Helen Moulder and Sue Rider have crafted a superb work which one would only expect to see in a major city. It would be nice to see it again.
Playing Miss Havisham Ultra-solo show ideal for touring
Actresses of a certain age have no great expectations of leading roles or regular work unless they score a mature character part on a TV soap opera. One or two live theatre gigs a year is good going. Hence Helen Moulder’s growing habit of creating work for herself.
It began eight Fringe Festivals ago with The Legend Returns, in which her unhinged diva Cynthia Fortitude was bracketed with accompanist Gertrude Rallentando (Rose Beauchamp). Four years later she teamed up with director Sue Rider and dancer Sir Jon Trimmer to create Meeting Karpovsky. My review described her Sylvia as “a delightfully genteel and dotty lady of indeterminate age … going quietly mad in one room of a large rambling house” who enjoys a fantasy relationship with a world-famous ballet dancer. “The play uses fantasy to take us into a profoundly moving reality of great emotional depth.” It opened in Christchurch, won the Listener Best New Play Award in 2002, and saw Helen named Actress of the Year at Wellington’s 2003 Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards (Wellington).
It was also in 2003, that Helen conceived her next project, while playing Miss Havisham (“grotesque yet poignant”) in Cathy Downes’ Court Theatre production of Simon Phillips’ epic adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations.
Again collaborating with director Sue Rider, she has developed Playing Miss Havisham as an ultra-solo work, sharing the stage only with a dress-maker’s dummy and wedding frock, a music box, a minimal lighting board and a mini-disc player which she works by remote control, all designed to pack in a van and take far and wide – “No town or rural community too small” – even into people’s homes for audiences of 20 or more.
While he has recorded the music – by Granados, Bach, Schubert, Chopin, Debussy and, composed especially for the play, Gareth Farr – for the tour, pianist Richard Mapp does play it live for the Circa Two premiere season with great skill and sensitivity.
And so to the play and production.
Claudia – in contrast to Miss Havisham’s stopping the clocks and mouldering away in cobwebbed decay, when her great expectations of romantic love and happy-ever-after wedded bliss are shattered by a jilting cad – has long-since moved on from her first real love and a brief flirtation with drama school and the profound cultural wealth of London. She has settled into rural Cantabrian security with husband Alan, a farming accountant about to retire and take her to Africa in his customised Land Cruiser. Meanwhile musician son Ben is finding himself as part of a “punk Polynesian rock fusion group.”
When an idiosyncratic Irish woman film-maker comes to Wellington to remake Great Expectations and holds open auditions for roles including Miss Havisham, Claudia sees her chance to recover something of her lost self. It is recalling her quest to find Miss H, win the role and cope with all the attendant vicissitudes that drives the play’s action.
To detail more would upset the delicacy with which Ms Moulder peels back the layers, much as she exposes the hidden dimensions of the not entirely white wedding dress, exquisitely crafted by Julie Lawrence. In the deceptive guise of an amiable chat with her audience, embellished with multiple characterisation and punctuated with beautifully sung songs, she blends the eccentricity we’ve come to expect with an inescapable grounding in the real world.
It is impossible not to warm to this play because Helen Moulder connects with her audience and involves them – not least in their own game of chance, and in influencing the outcome – with great charm and sincerity. Just as you don’t need to know in advance about Great Expectations to understand the play, you don’t need to be an experienced theatre-goer to engage with pleasure in her Playing Miss Havisham.
Ideal for small as well as big town tours.
Wonderful theatre by ‘national treasure’
Reviewed by John Jefferies
Helen Moulder should be declared a National Treasure. For 90 minutes, alone, she captivated a capacity audience at St John’s with this brilliant piece of theatre.
She shares with her audience the story of Claudia, an ordinary woman who plucks up the courage to audition for the part of Miss Havisham in a new film of Dickens’ Great Expectations, to be filmed in Wellington.
During the course of the play, we are introduced to the members of Claudia’s extended family, the Irish “enfante terrible” director of the film, and of course, to Miss Havisham herself. Moulder paints her pictures with the delicacy of a master watercolourist, and layer by layer, bit by bit, builds up flawlessly realised portraits of all her many characters.
Those who were fortunate enough to see Moulder with Jon Trimmer in Meeting Karpovsky in 2004, will be familiar with her spare, powerful style. But with Havisham, she has surpassed even the brilliance of Karpovsky.
Her skill at the subtle interweaving of the stories of Havisham, Claudia and her family and Claudia’s distant past, is nothing short of magnificent and her connection with her audience complete.
Adding to the theatre experience is the perfectly chosen music, including composers Bach, Schubert, Debussy, Granados, recorded for the production by Richard Mapp. A particular delight is the piece written (one assumes) for Moulder by Gareth Farr.
Moulder is in Nelson for a month, performing in private homes, churches, libraries and other small venues – her play is in fact subtitled A Solo Play for Small Spaces.
This is a wonderful piece of theatre by a consummate professional, and should not be missed. Performance of this calibre is rare indeed.
Playing Miss Havisham
Reviewed by Nozz Fletcher
A good-sized audience in the cosy Picton Little Theatre on Saturday June 10th warmed to an engaging performance by Helen Moulder, twice Wellington Actress of the Year. She plays a theatre-loving farmer’s wife, Claudia, and other characters in her own and Dickens’ story.
Claudia has great expectations of gaining a professional film role as Miss Havisham. Miss Havisham had her Great Expectations shattered by being jilted on her wedding day. So she closets herself in a room as the cobwebs and rats claw at her dreams and the wedding dress. Claudia’s dreams of a creative life are shattered by her ambitious pianist lover in London who cools once she becomes pregnant. Hence her marriage to a NZ farmer with dreams of going off-road through Africa. Meantime her son is also disappointing her with dreams of becoming a rock musician. Asher story develops the audience is invited to share in the fickle hopes of a real Scratchy and in voting for three life choices she is eventually faced with.
Helen deftly weaves in music and lighting with a remote control. She has magic conversations – with a piano played by her London lover, with Alan her stolid husband, with her vainly ambitious feminist Irish film director and others. She sings, beautifully and comically. She constructs and deconstructs the wedding dress, a palpable presence created by NMIT costume graduate and wearable arts designer, Julie Lawrence. She literally draws the audience into her complicated web of hopes and dilemnas.
Many talented people have contributed to this beautifully conceived production; pianist Richard Mapp, composers Gareth Farr, Bach, Debussy and Schubert, co-writer ith Helen, and international award-winning director, Sue Rider.
The Boathouse Theatre, Rai Valley and Waitaria have hosted this production. May she play to packed woolsheds, homes, theatres and community halls throughout New Zealand. Not since Bruce Mason toured “End of the Golden Weather” has anyone embarked on such an ambitious off road theatrical safari.
By Alan Scott
You may have seen Helen Moulder playing Miss Havisham in the Court’s Production of Great Expectations. She made a fine job of it and she excels the second time around in this offbeat comedy. She is not so much playing Miss Havisham as playing an actor, Claudia, who has the role in a film version of Dickens’ novel that’s being made in Wellington by an eccentric director.
Actually Claudia is not really an actor. With only one year of drama training, she has spent her life living an hour out of Christchurch, married to a farm accountant who,along with her Uncle Frank, has disappeared off to Africa to do a great trek in a 4WD.
This is a one woman play and so Moulder is required to play all the characters in Claudia’s life, which she does superbly. What makesit all the more interesting is that the play is designed for small spaces. So, with a minimum of theatrical devices, and as close to an audience as you can get, she has to make the spectators suspend their disbelief with precious little but her own ability.
What makes the evening so enthralling is that in pulling off this trick she doesn’t so much show off herself but rather demonstrates what the art of acting is all about.
By Terry MacTavish
20 May 2007
Dickens, who virtually killed himself giving dramatic readings of gothic-horror scenes from his novels in barnstorming tours of England, would surely approve of Helen Moulder's initiative in taking Miss Havisham's story to the forgotten corners of godzone.
Maori Hill, Dunedin, might not care to see itself so categorised, but its pretty little Community Hall feels more like the centre of village life than of a privileged suburb. It has multiple uses - the next day it was set up for a Persian rug sale. Once upon a time it was a church, and the audience seemed mostly of an age to have attended Sunday school here, or perhaps one of the crowded, carefully chaperoned Saturday-night dances. But on Thursday night, cramped conditions and numb bums, some perched on windowsills, were quickly forgotten once Moulder, herself a consummate storyteller, had cast her spell.
Dickens' beautiful mad heiress Miss Havisham in Great Expectations is an unforgettably fabulous character. When her confident expectations of a blissful future are dashed by the non-appearance of her lover on her wedding day, she stops the clocks and immures herself in her mansion, still dressed in her yellowing (and probably very smelly) gown and brooding over the decaying wedding cake infested with mice and spiders . . . Marvellous theatre, darling; any actress of a certain age would kill for such a role.
Thus Moulder is not Dickens' Miss Havisham, but Claudia, who once headed off to London Drama School armed with an Arts Council grant and great expectations which came to nothing, thanks to a selfish muso lover. Instead of stopping the clocks she has settled for a prosaic though not altogether unhappy life married to a Canterbury farmer. The play takes up her story at the moment when eccentric Irish film producer 'Jules' arrives to audition for Great Expectations, and Claudia sees her chance to live the life she'd missed after all.
Moulder succeeds, not only in creating a Claudia we come to care about, but in showing us Claudia's world, slipping effortlessly into character as the various menfolk who do not come up to expectations, from retired farm-accountant and would-be explorer husband Alan to punk-Polynesian-rock-fusian musician son Ben. Her rapport with the audience quickly established, she charms us into enjoying the narrative without troubling too much over some rather implausible coincidences.
It is a brave actor who is their own technician, but Moulder controls the modest but effective lighting, creates Miss Havisham's wedding gown as she chats confidingly about auditions with Jules ("she says I'm deliciously gaunt"), and without a single hiccough operates the CD player to enliven the show with atmospheric music, beautifully played by Richard Mapp, ranging from classics to a captivating Gareth Farr work, "For Helen".
A touring one-woman production is fortunate indeed to have Sue Rider on the team. Rider, Artistic Director of Brisbane's consistently innovative La Boite Theatre for many years, is a top director as well as playwright, and as anyone who has been involved with, say, The Matilda Women can attest, she can work theatrical miracles with just a length of rope. In this production, simple props are used with telling effect, and the audience seems delighted to be involved in holding ribbons to represent a spiderweb, examining photos passed round like exhibits to a jury, and whistling up spooky wind-effects while Miss Havisham's ravaged features are lit by a torch held under her chin. And inevitably we become part of the show at the end, giving our vote to help Claudia decide what step she should take next.
Terrific to have quality theatre taken round the country, and already this year Dunedin has enjoyed great shows by accomplished performers such as Jan Bolwell in Here's Hilda, the liveliest-ever tribute to a grandmother, and Alex Ellis in the frenetic Biscuit and Coffee. Both these were mounted in the Fortune's Hutchison Studio, but Moulder has gone a step further in accessibility and intimacy by taking Miss Havisham to homes, libraries, and even farm-sheds: barnstorming indeed.
While Moulder's air of pained elegance admirably became this particular venue, with its wood-panelled walls and stained glass, I discovered in myself a desire to become a bit of a groupie, following the production round the country to see how different it would be in each new venue, with each new audience. Apparently Southland has been giving its vote at the end for Claudia to stick with the farmer husband. Huh. Dunedin, home of the first university, opted for her to abandon all blokes and do something for herself alone. I felt a thrill of pride.
“Always a delight” - National Radio
“It is impossible not to warm to this play because Helen Moulder connects with her audience… with great charm and sincerity. Just as you don’t need to know in advance about Great Expectations to understand the play, you don’t need to be an experienced theatre-goer to engage with pleasure in her Playing Miss Havisham."
“pianist Richard Mapp (plays) …. with great skill and
– John Smythe’s Theatre Review Website
“comedy with a delightfully playful self-consciousness”
“succeeds in turning cheerfully over-wrought melodrama into raw, compelling theatre” - Richard Thomson, SCOOP
“Moulder is a consummate performer”
“Her imagining of the teenage Miss Havisham is enchanting”
- Capital Times
“visually dominated by Miss Havisham’s wedding dress, a gorgeous, eye-catching symbol of expectations”
“Moulder uses her considerable skills as actor, singer and comedian to their fullest advantage … in styles ranging from comic ham to moments of naturalistic Chekhovian empathy” - Dominion Post
“This is a wonderful piece of theatre by a consummate professional
and should not be missed.” – John Jefferies, Nelson
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