Miriam Margolyes in Dickens’ Women

Powerhouse Theatre (Andrew McKinnon Presentations)



I have a weakness for one-person shows, and I’ve seen a fair few of them, ranging from Edgar Allan Poe to Dickens and back through the circle of nineteenth-century greats via Mark Twain and Henry Lawson (and his Mum Louisa) to Dickens again. I’d also include in the list Roy Dotrice’s wonderful Aubrey in Brief Lives and possibly even our own fictional Monk O’Neill played by, among others, Max Gillies and Barry Otto in A Stretch of the Imagination

as beginning and ending parentheses. Of course, there are lots more, and theatregoers will have their own favourites. Sometimes they are done as plays in themselves, such as John Astin’s Edgar Allan Poe — Once upon a midnight at the Adelaide Festival some years ago (Astin, by the way, was Uncle Gomez in The Addams Family. Is that suitable casting or what?) or Steven Berkoff’s Poe. Sometimes they are monologues done in character, and sometimes they are readings or enactments with a linking script, which is often thematic. This is the route Miriam Margolyes has taken.

Margolyes had a huge success with her Dickens in America, and here she entertains us again with a panoply of Dickens’ women (first put on in Australia in 1992 at the Sydney Festival), her wonderfully mobile face and expressive body taking us through quite a few of the more grotesque characters, and unfortunately too few of the little battlers and the strong but admirable (rather than vicious) women. But with so many amazing subjects to choose from, there are bound to be ones you wished she had “done.” The big surprise and one of the most moving portrayals, startling in its modernity, was that of Miss Wade from Little Dorrit, orphan victim of a brutalised childhood, who preaches rebellion to the vulnerable Tattycoram, and who through Dickens’s words becomes a bitter avenging angel. Margolyes places her Miss Wade upstage with a single spotlight, making rather ominous shadows and, more importantly, helping to create that optical trick of a halo, the aura of the mesmerising single person on stage. Here Miss Wade becomes someone who attempts to explain why she has become what she has, the result of endless humiliations, her sexuality battered and damaged beyond repair. It’s quite a showstopper.

The program opens with John Martin at piano playing a few Victorian parlour songs like “I dreamt that I dwelt in marble halls” and “Come into the garden, Maud”, just for a bit of a singalong. Then onto the stage with a strange mincing step comes probably one of Dickens’ most memorable grotesques, Mrs Gamp from Martin Chuzzlewit, the so-called nurse with her imaginary acolyte Mrs Prig of the Prig school of nursing. Mrs Gamp loves laying out corpses, terrorising old men by shaking them which is “highly beneficial to the performance of the nervous system” (see Mrs Prig), and stealing the coppers from dead people’s eyes. Margolyes just needs a twist of the body, a roll of the eye, a sideways slip of the chin, and Mrs Gamp’s venality is obvious, “Gamp is my name and Gamp is my nater.” It’s a trick of history that we only remember her now by her umbrella, because there are plenty of venal members of our society who could wear her name with good cause. Perhaps we should revive it.

It’s quite an opening, and the portrait of Dickens that builds up through letters, readings, and a wealth of more characters, is one of a man for whom women were immensely important, but who nevertheless had a very problematic relation with them, particularly with his mother and his wife, Catherine. We also hear about his sister-in-law Georgina, who chose to stay with him when he separated from her sister, and his mistress Ellen Ternan. The story Margolyes tells is roughly chronological, although his memorialising of the women in his life emerges randomly throughout his writing life. There is his grandmother whose stories delighted him as a child in Mrs Lirriper, or his first love Maria when young as Nora Spenlow in David Copperfieldand then, devastatingly, when old as Flora Finching in Little Dorrit. Flora Finching is a gem, all flirtatious giggles accompanied by snorting, girlish tossing of the hair, artlessly “running into nonsense again” and in whom the lovely flower of youth had blossomed into a very full-blown peony indeed.

Most of Dickens’ pet hates can usually be seen in his portrayals of women, such as all of the demoralising and cruel teachers representative of the education system of his time, like Mrs Pipchin who terrorises Paul Dombey even while he is looking at her with “rapt interest.” And then there are all the 17-year-olds, the pretty, ineffectual ideal heroines whom Margolyes finds “rather icky.” So did Oscar Wilde who wrote that one would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing. Lots of spinsters too, like Miss Tox also from Dombey and Son, those forlorn old maids so common in the 19th century who are seldom vicious but who are not comely enough to warrant anything but the caricaturist’s pen.

One of the funniest encounters immediately after the interval — Margolyes believes in the value of a great entrance — is between the Matron and Mr Bumble from Oliver Twist. She plays both parts, with Mr Bumble perhaps being the pièce de résistance as he courts this creature of “such parochial perfection.” It was hilarious. She confessed afterwards that she loved doing that part with its “sexual greed and economic greed in the same scene.” This is physical theatre at its best, acting with the whole body, seen most clearly in Miss Moucher, the dwarf who always carries the Prince’s nail cuttings, in what must be a physically draining scene.

So this is a chauvinist Dickens, using women to express his anger about certain aspects of his world, but who can provide an unexpectedly tender and sensitive portrait of someone caught up in the toils of a bureaucracy gone mad, gentle Miss Flite who every day expects a judgment in Chancery in Bleak House. This is how the show ended as the stage slowly darkens and the spot narrows to just a circle of light round Miriam Margolyes’ head speaking Miss Flight’s sadly hopeful words. I’m not altogether sure that I agree with Miss Havisham as a Dickens figure, and I would love to have seen a Margolyes Infant Phenomenon or even a Lizzie Hexam, who’s a young girl who is not “icky” at all. The Powerhouse Theatre acoustic is not all that good with whispers and the lower registers being sometimes hard to hear, and the lighting occasionally produced some odd effects. And while I’m quibbling, how about that strange garment which looked as if the dresser had seized on some old Victorian curtains? But this is a wonderful evening, full of all those human emotions of which Dickens would so much have approved.

Directed by Sonia Fraser

Playing 26 Sept to 6 Oct, 2007. Sun 30 Sept, Sat 6 Oct 3pm. Tues 2 Oct-Fri 5 Oct 7.30pm.

Duration : 2hrs 20mins (including 20min interval).

— Barbara Garlick
(Performance seen: Tue 25th September 2007)