Dickens' Women's Miriam Margolyes has some novel ideas
Speaking to theGeorgia Straight by telephone, actor Miriam Margolyes turns out to be as eccentrically surprising as any of the 21 females she plays in her solo show Dickens’ Women.
And this isn’t just the eccentricity she displays in her appearances on The Graham Norton Show, a chat fest on British TV. In those clips, the 71-year-old British lesbian, who played Professor Sprout in two Harry Potter movies, speaks puckishly about, among other things, giving a blowjob to an American G.I. when she was a university student. Ask her about being queer, however, and the response might not be what you expect. “I think that people’s sexuality is their own business and I think that we tend to talk too much about it and get too hung up on it,” she says, speaking from New Haven, Connecticut, where she is performing Dickens’ Women. Her tone is firm as she continues: “I am, I know, on my own in gay show business with this attitude, but I believe that people should not come out if the people whom they love and they tell would be hurt by it. I think that us gay folk have become terribly self-indulgent. We feel that we have a right of entitlement to come out and I don’t agree with that.”
Responding to the stunned silence on the other end of the line, her trademark playfulness emerges as she adopts an American accent and says, “You see? I’m so inneresding!”
Although she’s not radical on the queer front, Margolyes is a self-acknowledged feminist who remembers meeting Germaine Greer when they were both students at Cambridge in the early ’60s as one of the most important events of her university career. “She’s slightly batty now,” Margolyes says of Greer, “but still a wonderful person, influential and incisive.”
As a feminist, Margolyes is clear-eyed about Dickens’s sometimes problematic sexual politics. In Dickens’ Women, she points out the author’s “rather icky” infatuation with creating characters who are “tiny, little, prepubescent, mini-breasted, child love-objects,” the most famous of whom is Little Nell, heroine of The Old Curiosity Shop. But Margolyes sees all of this as part of the complexity of Dickens’s character and work. “He is complicated and passionate and often wrong,” she explains, “but he wrote like a god and that’s what I love.”
Indeed, Margolyes sees complexity as an underpinning of Dickens’s genius. To illustrate her point, she refers to Mrs. Micawber from David Copperfield. “Mrs. Micawber is very likely based upon his mother, with whom he had an extremely tortured relationship,” she says, “but he depicts her with great sympathy and affection. And I think that’s true to life. If life were simple, we’d all be rather different people, but it isn’t simple. I think Mrs. Micawber is a brilliant character, because she is funny and silly—and touching.”
Since she wrote Dickens’ Women with Sonia Fraser in 1989, Margolyes has won rave reviews internationally for her performance in it. Her advice to young actors about how to inhabit Dickens’s characters is simple: “Pay attention to the text. More than anything else, actors must be able to read. I don’t know so much about going to class; I think you’ve got to read. Because it’s in the text that you find the clues and the bricks with which you can build your character.”
Margolyes also champions reading for nonactors. “Reading takes us beyond ourselves,” she says. “We need to be compassionate, and reading opens the doors to other minds. If we just stay locked in our own little world, we will never taste the glories of other people.”
Dickens’ Women is at the Cultch from Thursday (November 15) to December 1.