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Review: Dickens’ Women

Posted on 29 June 2012 by Edward Franklin

 


At a time when every passing month yields another blog post bemoaning the number and diversity of roles for women in the theatre, this revival of Miriam Margolyes and Sonia Fraser’s 1989 one-woman show, performed by Margolyes, makes for a strident rebuttal. Here are 23 such roles, taken from the life and works of Charles Dickens and played out in quick succession over the course of the evening, each as different from the last as it doubtless will be from the next.

As everyone from Martin Chuzzlewit’s morbidly droll nurse Mrs. Gamp and Great Expectations‘s fiercely tragic Miss Havisham through to Dickens’s own mother, wife and sisters-in-law, Margolyes glitters with bravura versatility, but she shines just as brightly as herself. She hardly needs to acknowledge her “relish in [Dickens’s] humour, variety and vitality” – it is clear for all to see, and works to reconcile the performance aspect of the evening with a lecture-like discussion of Dickens’s relationship with women, and the extent to which his personal relationships with them informed his writings.

These links never feel forced, are often humorous and are always informative; Dickens’ tendency to write naïve and virtuous ingénues forever aged 17 is wittily lampooned, but comes to bear new significance in light of the personal context in which these characters were created. This particular moment is also the only time at which the presence of Benjamin Lee on piano feels particularly warranted; his jaunty underscoring of the extended joke adds to the segment’s witticism. Elsewhere, Michal Haslam’s score feels a little redundant; a wisp of a festive theme cropping up at a mention of Christmas is little more than a token gesture to incorporate music, whilst a piece in period style played before Margolyes’s entrance sets completely the wrong tone for a piece which – though affable – is also a genuine intellectual interrogation of arguably the greatest of the Victorian novelists.

That said, it is the novels and not the novelist himself who provide the most memorable moments of all, two characters from Little Dorrit in particular. First comes Flora Finching: broad, giggling, short of breath and based on Dickens’ own first love, whom he met with 19years after she spurned him to find her far less beguiling than she had been. Margolyes makes her essentially kindly, but overbearing and preposterous – there is no doubt that this is a cruel caricature, drawn in revenge against a woman whom Dickens could not forgive for having changed so irrevocably. Secondly, and most movingly, is Miss Wade, a character most discussed nowadays in relation to her association with a strong lesbian subtext. In a speech in which she details her adolescent infatuation with a female friend, Margolyes allows her audience to forget that Dickens was in the first instance a man and, in the second, working more than 150 years ago.

One gets the sense that Margolyes and Fraser are far too clever to make an explicit, wheedling argument for Dickens’s contemporary relevance, but that is, in the end, what we get. As such, though it’s hardly pushing the boundaries of theatre practice, it is an evening worth attending for all ages; if you haven’t read any of the novels from which the work’s characters are derived, you’ll leave wondering why the Dickens not.

Dickens’s Women is currently on a UK and international tour. More details can be found at: www.dickenswomen.com/performances-tickets

 

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Review: Dickens’ Women

Posted on 25 June 2012 by Annabel Baldwin

“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

 

Annabel Baldwin

Annabel Baldwin

I am currently doing an acting degree at Arts Educational, after doing German, English and Drama at A – level. I have a particular interest in physical theatre and have trained with Rambert Youth Dance Contemporary Company since last September. I spend the rest of my time reading philosophy and frequenting the London Theatres as much as possible.

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