British theatre legend Miriam Margolyes brings her acclaimed one-woman show to Toronto for the first time, exploring Charles Dickens and the women who shaped him.
If you’re not a Charles Dickens scholar or a literary buff, you might think you don’t know much about the man who wrote stories of hope and love, who promulgated messages of compassion and empathy, who even “invented Christmas.” But, according to Miriam Margolyes, creator of Dickens’ Women—on now at The Word Festival—Dickens’ life and his work are one and the same. And, just like his books, Dickens was one complicated man.
If you don’t know the name Miriam Margolyes right away, it doesn’t matter. Though she’s a renowned actress and activist (and a legend in the U.K.), to North American audiences she’s still instantly recognizable as the Nurse from Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, and as Professor Sprout in the Harry Potter movies. But on the stage, she’s something else entirely. She manipulates her round face and equally round hair to transform herself into more than 20 memorable Dickens characters, from works like Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, and Little Dorrit—all while telling the author’s life story between her performed excerpts.
Margolyes’ unbridled passion for Dickens fuels the show. As a result, when she breaks character to speak about Dickens’s life and the women that influenced it, she’s just as electric as one of his fictional personalities. Also contributing to the show’s spark is the intrinsic conflict Margolyes feels in her devotion to the author, who turns 200 this year. As an outspoken feminist and gay rights activist, she admits that she disapproves of Dickens’ chauvinistic portrayals of women.
But instead of skewering each characterization, from the slight and innocent Little Nell to the cheap drunkard Mrs. Gamp (from Martin Chuzzlewit), her performances humanize them. She does the same thing for Dickens himself, in part by exposing his darker side. (He was, among other things, a man who pined after 17-year-olds and shunned his wife.) Even so, Margolyes’ characterization of the author never never becomes too one-sided. As Margolyes has said, despite Dickens’ angering portrayals of women, it’s his humour that she relishes.
She capitalizes on that humour in the first act, but the show takes on a darker mood in the second. In particular, Margolyes’ interpretation of the scene between Ms. Corney and Mr. Bumble in Oliver Twist, written as clownish in the musical Oliver!, is extremely funny—but she adds an incredibly dark undertone.
Enough can’t be said about Margolyes as a performer. She’s just as believable as the trembling boy Pip as she is when she plays the cause of his terror, Miss Havisham, from Great Expectations. Margolyes masterfully places this particular piece after an explanation of an unimaginably sad moment of Dickens’ life (or rather, his wife’s). The pairing of the two stories is powerful.
The standout performance for us, though, was a scene featuring one of Dickens’ few noble female characters, the lesbian Miss Wade from Little Dorrit, whom Margolyes interprets as a powerful presence.
Margolyes has been touring Dickens’ Women since the 1980s, so it must run like clockwork for her by now. Even so, she seems as happy as ever to be performing it yet again here in Toronto, joined by local pianist Peter Tiefenbach. Just like the novels that inspired it, this theatrical production has stood the test of time.