By Erin Handley.
First published Saturday 24 March 2012 in Farrago.
“I’ve had a passion for Dickens all my life. I learnt from him that literature is not peripheral to life; it is the stuff of life itself.” Miriam Margolyes spoke these words in her astounding one-woman performance of Dickens’ Women, which recently finished in Melbourne and will continue to tour Australia until May. The 2012 world tour aligns with Dickens’ 200th birthday.
Margolyes hardly needs to state her passion; it’s written all over her performance. She wrote Dickens’ Women with Sonia Fraser and performed it at the 1989 Edinburgh Festival. It’s impressive that after 23 years of rehearsing these characters, Margolyes still emits energy and sheer delight.
Dickens’ Women is a collection of monologues and dramatic readings that dramatise 23 different characters (only three of them male). Miriam Margolyes (as herself) strings the pieces together by sharing her knowledge of Dickens and drawing connections between the women in his life and the women of his novels. Centering a performance on the women in Dickens’ novels was ambitious. Many consider Dickens a male chauvinist who could not depict a believable, three-dimensional female character. The format ofDickens’ Women works because it shows Dickens’ fictional women in the context of his reality, and it displays his breadth of female characters, rather than a single character’s depth (or lack thereof).
This format also showcased Margolyes’ talent. She has a face so expressive she can immediately flick from one character to another. She could convincingly portray the idea of a 17-year-old with her voice alone. At 70 years of age, this is no mean feat. It’s clear that Margolyes relished performing Dickens’ marginal characters—they are caricatured, humourous, even grotesque, and this makes for brilliant theatre.
Although I enjoyed it immensely, I knew there would be characters missing from Dickens’ Women. I would have liked to see the highly satirised Mrs Jellyby, but Dickens’ wrote over 20 novels and there are only so many characters one woman can play in two hours. I would have preferred to see the deranged Miss Havisham performed by Margolyes in monologue form, rather than read dramatically. But the only real disappointment of Dickens’ Women was that Nancy from Oliver Twist did not get dramatic treatment. She is a challenge to the idea that Dickens could not write a female character of emotional maturity, and Dickens was drawn to her. Towards the end of his life, Dickens performed many dramatic readings, and would read the exchange between Bill Sykes and Nancy with such intensity that his doctor ordered him to stop, for fear of his health. But Dickens could not. Oliver Twistwas also the first Dickens novel that Margolyes read, so it’s strange that Nancy was omitted.
However, I admired the way Margolyes brought peripheral characters into the spotlight. Her poignant portrayal of the lesbian Miss Wade from Little Dorritwas outstanding, as was her final monologue—a tender rendering of crazy Miss Flite from Bleak House. The lighting here was particularly effective; the spotlight slowly closing in around Margolyes’ face, showing the state of Miss Flite’s mind and creating a sense of entrapment.
Apart from these somber monologues, Margolyes had her audience laughing throughout the entire performance. The courtship scene between Mrs Corney and Mr Bumble from Oliver Twist was one such highlight; Margolyes impressively played both the smug beadle and the blushing woman in their affectionate ridiculousness.
Just as Dickens made these characters come alive for Margolyes, she did the same for her audience; she drew the women of Dickens out of the musty realm of Literature and into vivid theatricality.