You may recognize Miriam Margolyes as Professor Sprout from the “Harry Potter” movies, or her voice from “Babe”. You may not know that Margolyes, a lifelong Charles Dickens admirer, has been performing a solo show about the author since 1989.
“Since I first read Oliver Twist at the age of eleven, I have been entranced by the power of his characters and the majesty of his prose,” the British actress says about Dickens. “Then when I learned about the man himself, I realized that he himself was as interesting and as layered as the characters that he portrayed. I devoured all the books.”
Out of this came Dickens' Women, in which Margolyes plays no less than twenty-three characters, many of whom are familiar from Dickens' novels: Miss Havisham from Great Expectations, Mrs. Micawber from David Copperfield, Mrs. Gamp from Martin Chuzzlewit and many others. But the show is also a critical look at Dickens himself as a person, revealing some of his less Oliver Twist-like traits. “Home devil, street angel,” as Margolyes puts it.
To mark the bicentennial of Dickens' birth, which occurred last February, Dickens' Women has been touring extensively throughout the U.K., Australia, New Zealand and North America this year. Margolyes just finished a five-show run in Sanibel, Florida, and the show comes to Toronto's Young Centre for the Performing Arts this Wednesday, as part of the venue's Word Festival.
Margolyes and her co-writer, Sonia Fraser, first developed the show for the 1989 Edinburgh Festival. “I had in my mind to draw a parallel with the women in the life and the women in the works,” Margolyes explains, “because I felt that his view of the female sex was a skewed one, which came from the treatment he had experienced from the women in his life. He was a damaged man, and he felt that it was women who damaged him. I leave it to my audience to see if they agree.
“And I wanted to show my powers as an actress. I had always felt that Dickens would be the perfect writer for me. I don’t have to delve for emotion; it’s there just under the surface – as it was with him.”
Margolyes had previously revealed her flair for portraying Dickensian ladies in film and on TV. She played Mrs. Bumble in the 1985 BBC version of Oliver Twist, and in 1989, she won the Best Supporting Actress award from the Los Angeles Critics Circle for her role as Flora Finching in Little Dorrit. But her credits also include her BAFTA-winning role in Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence, as well as three different characters in Blackadder. (She also claims to have mooned Warren Beatty once.)
She counts Mrs. Gamp and Miss Havisham as her favourite Dickensians to perform. The latter is one of the author's best-known female characters: a vengeful spinster who lives as a recluse in her mansion for years after being left at the altar, never taking off her decaying wedding dress. “Her malice, her desolate loneliness, her anguish and her cunning make her one of the most iconic of all his creations,” says Margolyes. “I enjoy playing her and feeling the audience listening to the words. She will live in their imaginations, as she does in mine, forever.”
An old-school literature lover, Margolyes has little patience for modern readers who can't be bothered with Dickens' lengthy, descriptive prose. “It is hard to get people to put down their screens – phones, iPads, TVs, Nintendos – even for a moment, and the thirty-second TV commercial has ruined people's attention spans. We have become stupid and lazy, and Dickens demands more than that... His moral energy, his humour and his passionate engagement with the human race force your attention, and my audiences have no trouble understanding and enjoying what’s going on.”
So although literature has changed greatly since the Victorian age, Margolyes is confident that Dickens' works still speak to us strongly – and will continue to do so.
“He is relevant in the way that any great artist is relevant,” she explains. “He holds the mirror up to nature, we see ourselves and we learn from his accurate dissection of our motives. And we see exactly the same traits, problems and wickedness in our time as in his, because he portrays them so sharply.
“And he makes us laugh and laugh.”