Devised and written by Miriam Margolyes and Sonia Fraser. Produced by Richard Jordan Productions in association with Andrew McKinnon and PW Productions. Presented by the Cultch. At the Cultch’s Historic Theatre on Thursday, November 15. Continues until December 1
What a voice. Looking at actor Miriam Margolyes, you might simply think she’s full-figured, but I suspect she’s concealing speakers in there. The sheer force of the volume she can muster is incredible. So is her vocal agility. Her instrument, as they say, is admirably well-suited to the extravagance of Charles Dickens’s prose.
In Dickens’ Women, which Margolyes wrote with Sonia Fraser and first performed in 1989, Margolyes plays 21 women from the Victorian author’s oeuvre. As Margolyes explores her theories about how these characters are related to the real women in Dickens’s life, a darkly shaded portrait of the man emerges. Yes, he decried economic injustice in his work, but he was also breathtakingly cruel to his wife, Catherine, and in Margolyes’s analysis he had a “rather icky” fascination with 17-year-old girls, or “prepubescent child love-objects”, as she describes them (think Little Nell from The Old Curiosity Shop or Amy Dorrit from Little Dorrit).
Margolyes is a master at creating instant three-dimensional characters. That said, the first act of Dickens’ Women didn’t completely engage me on opening night, partly because, in a kind of overselling of the material, Margolyes fell into a habit of loudly emphasizing every fourth or fifth word; enthusiasm is great in actors and dogs, but I don’t enjoy it when either is barking at me.
In Act 2, that problem largely fell away. The second half starts with a terrific scene in which Margolyes plays both the beadle Mr. Bumble and the matronly Mrs. Corney from Oliver Twist. With his hooded eyes and diagonally slanted mouth, Margolyes’s Bumble is a comic gargoyle of lust. And here the actor’s relish of the words is often delightful. “Mr. Bumble, I shall scream!” Mrs. Corney protests when the beadle kisses her, but in Margolyes’s delivery “scream” leaks out in a delighted whisper.
Whereas Act 1 sometimes gets bitty and hard to follow, the second act contains more sustained passages, including the section about Dickens’s abuse of his wife, and a gorgeous three-character exchange between Miss Havisham, Estella, and Pip from Great Expectations. Miss Havisham is a grotesque—an ancient woman who still wears the white dress she had on when she was left at the altar decades earlier—but Margolyes plays her subtly, which makes her all the more unnerving. The actor shows similar restraint with the lesbian Miss Wade from Little Dorrit. For this one, Margolyes stands stock still with her head in a tight spotlight. As Miss Wade recounts the torment of a schoolgirl crush, Margolyes’s voice is so dreamlike and steady it seems to be emerging from stone. And my favourites are Margolyes’s portraits of little boys—including Paul Dombey from Dombey and Son. The actor presents these kids with unadorned innocence. And these characterizations reveal—as do so many others—the phenomenal range and musicality of her voice.
Margolyes’s talent is a phenomenon. In Act 2, she lets you luxuriate in it.