Char­ac­ter ac­tress

Charles Dick­ens could have no bet­ter in­ter­preter of the women in his nov­els than Miriam Mar­golyes. She talks to Sharon Verghis

The Weekend Australian - Review - - In Profile -

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


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