The bicentenary of Dickens’ birth sees a revival of Miriam Margolyes’ marvellous one-woman show Dickens’ Women. It’s playing at the Arts Centre until tomorrow night, then travels to Frankston (March 6-7), Geelong (March 9-10) and Ballarat (March 13). Tour details here. There are two reviews below, the first of this season, the second of the original one five years ago.
Dickens’ Women, By Miriam Margolyes and Sonia Fraser, The Arts Centre, Until March 3.
Dickens’ Women is extraordinary. I saw it five years ago and loved it then. The show more than repays a second viewing at the bicentenary of Dickens’ birth.
Miriam Margolyes brings the full panoply of Victorian London to life through acting so sharp and skilled it looks like a form of possession, and she deepens your appreciation of Dickens through scintillating insights into his life and work.
Many of Dickens’ characters can be traced to people he knew. The inspiration for all those saccharine teen heroines, the most famous being Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, was his sister-in-law Mary Hogarth, who died in Dickens’ arms at seventeen.
As Margolyes points out, they’re not very interesting. She has a much better time with Dickens’ grotesques – from the explosive comic personality of Miss Mowcher, the dwarf hairdresser in David Copperfield, to her powerful incarnation of Miss Havisham from Great Expectations – that sunless, broken-hearted husk of a woman whose malign voyeurism Margolyes suggests might be a self-portrait of Dickens himself.
Margolyes has incredible accuracy and range as a voice artist, and her elastic features match her vocal mastery. One highlight is the scene from Oliver Twist where the swinish beadle, Mr Bumble, courts a coquettish matron: it’s hilarious and a boggling testament to what character acting can achieve.
Yet the most striking moments transcend comedy to reveal the depth of Dickens’ imaginative empathy for suffering women: the aching portrait of Mrs Macawber, putting loyalty before dignity, or the majestic self-possession of Miss Wade from Little Dorrit, describing the torment of her lesbian affair with a feckless girl. These scenes are intensely moving and, in terms of Dickens’ own character, complicate his misogyny to the point of extreme paradox.
Margolyes communicates her enthusiasm for and knowledge of Dickens with the lightest of touches, and you’ll marvel at the way she inhabits his characters. Dickens’ Women has serious claims to being the best one-woman show you’ll ever see, and after its Melbourne season will tour metropolitan and regional Victoria. Don’t miss out.
Dickens’ Women, by Miriam Margoyles and Sonia Fraser, Playhouse, The Arts Centre September 20, Until September 23, 2007.
I recently listened to an audio-book of Miriam Margolyes reading Oliver Twist. Her speaking voice was so soothing and beautifully inflected, it was like sitting by an enchanted stream. But the real magic came with the dialogue, when Margolyes burst into character, and the men, women and children of the novel – the swinish beadles, dying mothers, and tremulous orphans – sprang fully-formed into the imagination.
Margolyes is an extraordinary character actress. Her one-woman show, Dickens’ Women, is a tribute both to her infectious passion for Dickens’ work and her astonishing versatility as a performer.
The show elegantly combines character sketches, short readings, biographical material and mordant commentary. Margolyes portrays characters from Dickens’ lesser known fiction as well as the classics, with selections made partly on biographical significance – some of Dickens’ characters were based on people he knew in life – and partly at Margolyes’ (often considerable) pleasure.
Margolyes enters as Mrs. Gamp from Martin Chuzzlewit, a sodden nurse who specialises in laying out corpses for burial. And it’s soon clear that Margolyes has a special affinity for Dickens’ grotesques, rendering his florid satires of human frailty with a full measure of hilarity, and a dash of poignancy when required.
Amazingly, her compelling vocal characterisations are matched in facial expression and physical gesture. She can contort her features into any kind of caricature. One memorable scene from Oliver Twist, when Mr. Bumble proposes to his paramour, sees Margolyes switch from wide-lipped lust to squinting coquettishness at lightning speed.
But it isn’t just the comedy that makes Dickens’ Women worth seeing. There are staggering dramatic portraits. As the lesbian Miss Wade from Little Dorrit, Margolyes aches with tormented love and barely controlled regret. As Miss Flight, the ageing spinster from Bleak House, she transforms from a slightly potty old duck into a softly-spoken Cassandra, as she recounts the increasingly unpleasant names of her birds.
Dickens’ Women is a tour de force. When she appears as herself, Margolyes sparkles with intelligence and enthusiasm and is full of witty erudition about Dickens’ life and work. And when she inhabits his characters, you’d swear they lived and breathed in front of you.