Charles Dickens could have no better interpreter of the women in his novels than Miriam Margolyes. She talks to Sharon Verghis
MIRIAM Margolyes limps down bustling Quay Street in Sydney’s Haymarket district, trundling a little suitcase on wheels. No one notices this little hobbit of a woman with her wild briar patch of grey curls; indeed, this celebrated British character actress might as well be wearing an invisibility cloak.
But when she marches up to the front desk of the hotel she’s checking into this morning, it’s a different story. Out of that small frame comes a startlingly big voice — crystal clear, impeccably inflected, and honed to perfection by childhood elocution lessons. ‘‘ What level is my room, please?’’ she booms across the foyer to the startled desk clerk. Bellhops and hotel guests jump.
Voices are people, Margolyes once said. If that’s the case, many lives are crammed into that dumpling body of hers. Upstairs in her hotel room, she spools them out one by one: a drunken Victorian nurse, an aristocratic English twit, an outraged middle-class Indian. ‘‘ Voices betray people perhaps in ways that they never imagine,’’ she says with brisk authority. ‘‘ People think if they’ve done their face and clothes, it’s all fine, but the voice shows everything. It shows background, education, regional particulars, what they’re trying to emulate. I think of Robert Maxwell, the newspaper man who was a bit of a crook. He was a Czechoslovakian Jew who was trying to be an English gentleman and all of that you can hear in his voice.’’
At 70, Margolyes resembles an unruly child, mischief sparkling from those pennyround brown eyes. She’s earthy, engagingly blunt, funny and fiercely political. She once mooned Warren Beatty on the set of Reds and flashed her breasts at Martin Scorsese and the crew on the set of The Age of Innocence (‘‘it had been a long day, I thought they needed cheering up’’); her unstoppable chatter has even earned her the ire of the Queen, no less, who told her curtly ‘‘ to be quiet’’ at a function at Buckingham Palace.
She swears freely, snorts, cackles, is startlingly candid about her politics, her flaws, her enemies (John Cleese and Bill Oddie, principally). Margolyes is, as you expect, an entertaining study.
She has just started a return Australian tour of her popular one-woman show Dickens’ Women, part of worldwide celebrations marking the bicentenary of Dickens’s birth. A self-confessed Dickens tragic from the time she read Oliver Twist at age 10, she developed the show with co-writer and director Sonia Fraser and launched it at the Edinburgh Festival in 1989. It features 23 female characters with biographical links to Dickens’s life, and opens with the drunken midwife Mrs Gamp (possibly her favourite, she thinks: ‘‘ she’s got that mixture of evil and comedy that is particularly Dickensian’’), and closes with the haunting figure of Miss Flite, the elderly eccentric from Bleak House; in between come Miss Havisham, Mrs Micawber and scores of others, all now old, cherished friends she talks to daily. ‘‘ They are real to me.’’
Her passion for their creator is infectious. As a young Jewish child ‘‘ outside the English class structure’’, as she puts it, she was subconsciously drawn to Fagin and the other rank outsiders and misfits of Oliver Twist; as an elderly, overweight gay woman, she still feels a keen affinity for the florid grotesques, orphans and eccentrics of Dickens’s richly imagined worlds. She’s drawn, too, to the larger-than-life, typically Georgian nature of his characters — ‘‘ they had big, fat cheeks and jowls, they were portly, or rake-thin and witchlike. I find it easy to step into that world because I myself am a slightly excessive person. I’m too fat, I’m too noisy, I’m a little bit in excess in every department.
‘‘ Directors are always saying to me, ‘ a bit less, Miriam’. And with Dickens, you don’t have to do that.’’
The show is no hagiography: Margolyes is keenly conscious of Dickens’s misogynistic streak. ‘‘ He felt betrayed by women, so his depictions of women are tinged by a kind of rage, a malevolence sometimes.’’ Yet she speaks of the writer with a mix of intimacy and reverence, as if he were a respected contemporary.
In this sunny Sydney hotel room she conjures up his early life in rich detail. Suddenly you see a ghostly picture of a small boy bringing food to his parents in prison, waking up at 4am to trudge to work across a London peopled by drunks ‘‘ screwing on the ground’’, footsore workers, wailing hungry children, wealthy people in carriages. ‘‘ He saw it all. And he never really lost the eye of the child, gazing at things and documenting it first in his mind, then on the page.’’
Her passion for the author is such that she is a regular attendee at one of the quirkiest academic events on the Dickens-lover’s calendar — the annual week-long Dickens Universe conference run by the University of