IMPRESSIVE, AMUSING AND INSIGHTFUL IF NOT MOVING
Developed by Miriam Margolyes and Sonia Fraser
Performed by Miriam Margolyes
Directed by Sonia Fraser
at Opera House, Wellington
From 7 Dec 2007 to 9 Dec 2007
Reviewed by John Smythe, 8 Dec 2007
A self-confessed show-off with a passion for her work and the writings of Charles Dickens, ebullient character actress Miriam Margolyes has managed to corral her phenomenal talent in Dickens' Women to compelling effect.
Developing the show with co-writer and director Sonia Fraser, their goal was "to explore the man himself, using his creations as windows into his life." But with 15 novels and many other literary works to his credit, containing 989 named characters, not to mention the 14,000 letters he wrote, that was a premise for many hours of material.
The focus here is on his attitudes to - and relationships with - women as perceived through those he wrote, with additional quotes from his personal writing and other historical research. That Dickens never forgot, let alone forgave, anything that happened in his eventful life seems indisputable. And of course this was fuel to his creative fire.
In a variety of extracts, comprising first-person monologues and third-person descriptive passages with dialogue, characters are drawn from a dozen Dickens titles: the better-known Martin Chuzzlewit, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, Oliver Twist, Dombey and Son, David Copperfield, Little Dorrit, Great Expectations and Bleak House; the lesser-known Sketches by Boz, The Uncommercial Traveller and Mrs Lirripers' Lodgings.
But the highly dramatised melodrama and sentimentality we readily associate with Dickens is not the stuff of this anthology. A roll-call of "young, beautiful and good" 17-year-old women is used to illustrate the proposition that he was fixated on his sister-in-law Mary Hogarth, who fell backwards into his arms, dead, on the staircase they were ascending at home after a night out at the theatre.
Margolyes finds them "rather icky", although - slipping chameleon-like in and out of each character - she does allow us to enjoy Little Nell's visit to Mrs Jarley's travelling waxworks in The Old Curosity Shop.
The ubiquitous themes of class and economic security are sheeted home to Dickens being born into the social-climbing lower middle class, his grandfather being charged with embezzlement, his father (the source of Wilkins McCawber in David Copperfield) and everyone else in the family being put in a debtor's prison while Charles was sent to work in a boot blacking factory.
Thus our appreciation of Dickens' pungent prose becomes even richer. To quote just one example (from Dombey and Son): "Paul sat as if he has taken life unfurnished and the upholsterer was never coming." And that novel's Mrs Pipchin - whose name was finally settled after many other shapes and sizes of chin were considered - is revealed as based on Dickens' London landlady at the time his father was in prison.
As a reporter at the Houses of Parliament, Dickens experienced the torments of teased-out yet unrequited love - for one Maria Beadnell - that resonates in David Copperfield's love for Dora, and gave rise to Flora Finching in Little Dorritt. But rather than assert the same provenance for the emotional cruelty Estella visits in Pip in Great Expectations (1861) under the formidable influence of Miss Havisham, Margolyes and Fraser assert - in the show's penultimate sequence - not only that Estella is based on the actress Ellen Turnan, whom Dickens met and fell for in 1857, but that the bitter and emotionally stunted Miss Havisham is based on Dickens himself!
His grandmother leads us to Mrs Lirripers' dissertation on the mystery of the black smudge that always found its way to 'Willing Sophy's nose. Mrs Skewton in Dombey and Son ("tumbled into ruins like a house of painted cards") and Rosa Dartle in David Copperfield ("I concluded in my own mind that she was about thirty years of age, and that she wished to be married. She was a little dilapidated, like a house, with having been so long to let ...") are offered as evidence of Dickens' underlying misogyny.
I'm not sure how valid it is to claim such evidence from the way he wrote his fictional women, even if many had elements in common with real people. Dickens was a keen observer of humanity and social satirist, after all, and he was equally ruthless in his depiction of men. But his dismissive treatment of his real-life wife, Catherine, who bore him 12 children in 16 years, and his description of her as a "donkey", does allow scrutiny of his personal behaviour in relation to the moral judgements implicit in his fiction.
That he meant no harm to those he used as models in his work is borne out in the anecdote concerning the dwarf hairdresser and manicurist Miss Mowcher in David Copperfield. When Dickens' wife's chiropodist, Mrs Jane Seymour Hill, recognised herself in the rather grotesquely described character and threatened to sue for libel, Dickens renovated the character radically for the remainder of his serialised story, rendering her far too boring for Margolyes to spend any more time with.
The most surprising segment is an insight to the character of Miss Wade in Little Dorrit, revealed as an unfulfilled lesbian whose complexity of deep-felt emotions through an early formative experience is, though heavily skewed by subjectivity, delivered with compelling compassion by both Dickens and Margolyes.
While the second hour opens with another richly funny two-character scene, from Oliver Twist, in which Mr Bumble the beadle woos widowed workhouse matron Mrs Corney over more than one cup of tea - enhanced by a bravura display of non-verbal expressions - the production ends with a poignant portrait of Bleak House's Miss Flite, waiting vainly at the court of Chancery for a favourable judgement that will, if it ever comes, resolve her financial woes.
Accompanied by Australian pianist John Martin - on a simple stage setting of rostra, 3 chairs of varying style, a stool and reading desk that replicates one used by Dickens on his tour of the USA, all watched over by a portrait of the man himself - Miriam Margolyes entrances her deeply attentive audience with an impressive, amusing and insightful performance.
That it may not be described as moving (although a friend did tell me the one thing she was moved by was the description of Catherine Dickens' fate) is due both to the anthological nature of the evening and the avoidance of sentimentality. What we leave with, then, is plenty to think about concerning Dickens the writer, and a great appreciation of Margolyes' technically exemplary skills, not least in enunciating and projecting every syllable without ever sounding contrived or insincere.
This tour of Australia and New Zealand ends tomorrow (9 Dec) in Wellington, but it's been around for years and will doubtless remain in Miriam Margolyes' repertoire.
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See also reviews by:
Laurie Atkinson (The Dominion Post);
Lynn Freeman (Capital Times);