“Dickens never got over anything,” says Miriam Margolyes, who made clear her incredible enthusiasm and passion for his work. What was astonishing about this performance was the combination of Margolyes’s talent in depicting the spirit of the female characters with the added commentary exposing his characters to almost always be inspired by an acquaintance of his own in reality. It was truly enlightening and compelling.
The night delivered some exceptional performances and the audience responded with expressive “here heres” and delighted in her ability to bring life into the characters of Little Nell, Mrs Pipchin, Miss Havisham, Flora Finching, Mrs Corney and so on. My particular favourite characterisation was that of Miss Wade from Little Dorrit, which Margolyes admitted to be her favourite novel, also commenting that the original film version was “infinitely superior” to any other – having starred in it. It was a deeply moving speech which comprised of complete stillness and expressive sensitivity towards the uncomfortable feelings of the character. A solitary spotlight and an emotive melody played by Benjamin Lee on the piano enhanced the piece further, suggesting a darker psychological side to Dickens’s work.
Margolyes concluded that if Dickens was not making us laugh, he’d be making us angry, notably referencing a description of an “incomparable housewife” in the character of Mrs Chirrup, from Sketches of young couples – “Mrs. Chirrup is the prettiest of all little women, and has the prettiest little figure conceivable”. Margolyes followed this description with a look of subdued frustration, an example of how well she seamlessly moved from character, to narrator, to herself. In the post show Q&A, a lady asked whether Dickens could be seen as a political satirist, to which Margolyes replied: “he was much more than that, he was a moralist”. Yet his life and works contradict each other, in terms of his regard for morals and compassion; in fact in the latter stages of their marriage, Dickens confined his wife Catherine to the upstairs rooms of their London home, and then instructed her to leave, never to see him or their ten children again. Margolyes eloquently said that his works were a “signpost to a better world”, yet he chose not to take that road himself.
There was information from the evening that I feel might be useful in a pub quiz one day, for example Dickens’s occupation with the tender age of 17. Margolyes extracted short descriptions of up to five of Dickens’s female characters, all aged 17. It was because of the death of his sister, who died in his arms at 17, that these characters were created. He was said to respect her enormously and through his characters, achieved a prolonged tribute to her perfection, toying with what she might have been. Margolyes confessed that she found all of these characters fairly “icky”, yet it served as a perfect example of how “Dickens never got over anything”. Differently, in one rare instance, Dickens’s passion is said to have overcome his genius in the dwarf character of Mrs Moucher in his early serialisations. Seymour Hill, on whom the character was based, was outraged at Dickens’s employment of slang language for the character, and in the next newspaper entry, Mrs Moucher appeared quite transformed. Margolyes exclaimed “she became saintly and boring… so I shan’t do her”. Margolyes told these stories and performed these scenes with such vigour and intoxicating excitement that the audience encouraged her to produce further audio books to complement the already completed version of Oliver Twist.
Dickens’ Women has a subtly brilliant production team behind it, including producer Richard Jordan, musical arranger Michael Haslam, pianist Benjamin Lee and co-writer Sonia Fraser, who channel their skills through Margoyles’s ability to entertain. The writing was sharp-witted, comical and intricate, with succinctness often illuminating the tangentential style of Dickens’s writing. Margolyes’s exuberance in the face of his genius overrode any hostility towards the author. A looming portrait of the author was gestured to during Margolyes’s standing ovation and while the audience appreciated his works, the evening’s performance was a celebration of Margolyes; a gifted woman and an extraordinary artist in her own right.
Dickens’ Women played at Artsdepot Theatre, North Finchley until 24 of June before heading out on tour. Next stop: Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bristol