Miriam Margoyles: A National Treasure
Charles Dickens' female characters run the gamut of human experience and emotion – from ingenues, to sexually-repressed spinsters, to harridans. So who better to portray that diversity than one of Britain's best-loved actors, the incomparable Miriam Margolyes? At 71, but with more energy and charisma than a woman half her age, she is fast approaching national treasure status – more of which later...
No stranger to Dickens, Margolyes won the LA Critics Circle Award for her role of Flora Finching in Little Dorrit and, of course, starred as Mrs Corney in Oliver Twist. This production is a real labour of love for the BAFTA-award winning actress: her passion for Dickens stems from reading Oliver Twist aged ten and then studying his work at Cambridge. Yet it is almost a happy accident that Dickens' Women became a one-woman show.
"I knew there was a parallel between the life and the works. I felt this could be expressed dramatically," she explains. "I collaborated with director Sonia Martin on two previous shows, one about Mary Webb, one about Gertrude Stein and together we went to Frank Dunlop and asked him to commission us for the 1989 Ed Fest.
"We'd discussed it for years. He did commission us and the first manifestation was Wooman, Lovely Wooman, What a Sex You Are (Bleak House)." David Timson took the male roles, but then got married and couldn't continue the tour. An actor tried out but was, in Margolyes' words, "hopeless," so her US agent suggested making it a one-woman show. The whole process took nine months to produce. Margolyes plays over twenty three characters in her Olivier-nominated show.
Questions about her virgin Edinburgh experience – as many performers shudder at the memory – bring a lively reply. "Ubu Roi at the Traverse directed by Gordon McDougall, where I played Ma Ubu," she recalls. "I remember the costumes were designed by Gerald Scarfe in the shape of the male and female genital organs! It caused a great fuss at City Hall – the usual uproar from the Edinburgh aldermen trying to protect their citizens from filth... But I prefer to remember Sonia and my presentation of Gertrude Stein and A Companion, one of the best things I've ever done, with Natasha Morgan as Alice B. That production also toured the world and won a Fringe First in 1984."
The discussion following actor Janet Suzmann's assertion that women get less opportunities in the theatre is something Margolyes can identify with. "There have always been fewer roles for women," she states, simply. "Nothing has changed."
After her stints in Blackadder, a star turn at the Citizen's Theatre last year and Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet, as well as being the voice of the Dolmio grandmother and the Cadbury's Caramel Bunny, Margolyes is happy to accept the national treasure tag. When put to her, it's easy to imagine those brown eyes twinkling with mischief, "I was not aware of this... it's LONG overdue."