Unravelling the life and work of Charles Dickens
Acheeky, irreverent portrait of a tortured genius by one of England's greatest character actresses." No, this isn't the breathless marketing blurb for Dickens' Women, Miriam Margolyes' acclaimed solo show – it's la Margolyes herself, describing the show down the phone to Weekend, using a dash of hyperbole of which Dickens himself would have approved.
First devised in 1989 ("It's a hoary old tart, like me!") by Miriam and the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School-trained director Sonia Fraser, Dickens' Women sees this great actress portraying no less than 23 characters – mostly female, as the title suggests – from Charles Dickens' enormous and endlessly varied fictional universe. Miriam has performed the show off and on since its inception. A major 2012 tour, to coincide with the bicentenary of Dickens' birth, now moves from Australia to the UK.
Margolyes is a uniquely expressive actress and Dickens, famously, wrote wonderfully larger-than-life characters. You can expect, then, a rich, technicolour evening, full of flamboyant portraits of equally flamboyant Dickensian folk – Great Expectations' eccentric elderly spinster Miss Havisham and Martin Chuzzlewit's tippling nurse Mrs Gamp, to name but two.
But there's more to Dickens' Women than colourful character comedy. "It's as much about the man himself as it is about his characters," Miriam explains. And the portrait that emerges is not a flattering one.
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"He was much crueller than people realise, and audiences will probably come away from my show admiring the works, but not liking the man. And that's how I feel. He did not behave well in his personal life, yet he is one of the two greatest writers in our language.
"I have chosen the characters in this piece not just because they are some of the most colourful and entertaining in Dickens' writing, but because they were based on real people in his life; people he fought with and cared for, loved and hated. At his core he felt betrayed by the very women he most trusted, and out of that hurt and sense of abandonment came some vivid, crafted characters. Again and again, he returned to the depiction of women who led men on and then let them down. It's not a complete portrait of the female sex – but it is a damning one."
Damning or not, did Dickens write authentic women? "People sometimes think of him as a caricaturist. I don't, because I think his portraits, though rich, have real life in them. But he certainly had an exuberant nature and imagination, which distinguishes him from contemporaries like Thackeray and George Eliot."
Like Dickens' novels and, it seems, his own life, Miriam's one-woman show traverses various moods, from rich comedy and high spirits to sadness and loss. "I try to follow the graph of his life," she explains, "which started out very harshly before his journey from rags to riches.
"Towards the end of his life, though, he was a husk of a man, eaten out by exhaustion. So my show, too, starts quite low-key, builds up to great heights of comedy, enthusiasm and activity, and then somewhat peters out in a fitful, sad, melancholic mood."
What would she like to send audiences away thinking and feeling? "Most of all, I hope to inspire them to go back to the books. It doesn't really matter what people think of Dickens as a human being, because he has been dead a long time and the pain he caused is long over. What lasts are the novels, and the magical worlds they create.
"It's my job to recreate those magical atmospheres, and among other actors I can think only of Simon Callow [another huge Dickens enthusiast] who can match me in the exuberance of his performance.
"This show is me at the height of my powers, doing what I was born to do."
Miriam Margolyes performs Dickens' Women at the Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bristol, from Monday, June 25, to Wednesday, June 27 June. See listings for details.