UPDATE OCTOBER 1, 2007: REVIEW APPENDED
Two rather random thoughts for the day from brilliant character actress and "New Australian" Miriam Margolyes:
Part of being an actress is that you have to be objective about yourself, but completely passionate and committed about your character.
You don't feel famous when you're having a shit in the morning. You just get on with it.
Margolyes is touring her one-woman show Dickens' Women
around Australasia in the next ten weeks.Miriam Margolyes being Julia
Now, I happen to think that Charles Dickens is beneath contempt -- as a writer and human being -- if he were alive today, I reckon he'd be turning out scripts for Kath and Kim
but Margolyes is always worth seeing. This show is no exception.
The tour, which opened this week in Melbourne, has prompted me to dust off a piece I wrote about the star of screen, stage and sound stage almost four years ago, around the time of the "refugees overboard" debacle.Don't be distracted by the belatedly-awarded OBE or the quince tart speaking voice that Miriam Margolyes engages when playing herself -- for an audience of one -- she is no more an insider in Great Britain than detained asylum seekers are in this country. And this "new Australian" has plenty to say about both the English caste system and our own "despicable" treatment of refugees.
But the little ol' lady with a huge voice -- the one who bullied Arnold Schwarzenegger in the film The End of Days
-- wants to end her days right here. "For the end of my life, I want the best. This is the best."
Yes, that internationally admired character actress is now resident here -- living in Bondi -- and soon to be a proud citizen. Well, proud-ish. Of her new home, she asks: "Is there anywhere else that could match it? It's optimistic, it's ironic, it's beautiful -- despite John Howard and his minions. I feel good here. I have close friends. And I fit in."
For a fit and feisty woman, all this talk about turning up her toes in our sandy soil seems wildly premature, even if she is the childless only-child of "old" parents.
"My mother died much too young. She had a stroke when she was 62... My age, in fact [in 2003]. Which is rather scary." The stroke left mother paralysed, "slightly mental" and unable to speak sensibly.
With a weird kind of aphasia, Miriam's mother could speak just two simple phrases "Poof I want" and "I can't afford a carriage" (from the song 'Daisy, Daisy') though she believed she was speaking intelligibly, saying ordinary words and sentences. "I was the only person who could really understand what she was getting at" explains Margolyes.
"The only good thing about having lived through her chronic illness is that it's given me a gravity that I might otherwise not have had. I might have been rather frivolous."
Margolyes's frivolity is largely confined to her increasingly visible contributions to films such as Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (she's Professor Sprout) and her amazingly prolific audio book recordings (Prince Charles is a big fan of her Oliver Twist) and voice-over work for all screens great and small... from the film Babe to Cadbury commercials.
But the best -- and least frivolous -- of her work is her stage acting. Those that saw Margolyes and Pamela Rabe do a double act as Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas in 1987, here in Australia, remember it vividly. And fondly.
Yet those performances pale beside her eye-popping, show-stopping turn in The Way of the World for the Sydney Theatre Company, early in 2003. Under Gale Edwards' scintillating direction, Margolyes turned Lady Wishfort from a bog-standard cartoon-character into a vulnerable and almost frighteningly authentic portrait of a deluded and still rampantly sexual older woman.
Modest to a fault in the face of slack-jawed praise, Margolyes concedes: "If I was good in it, beyond Gale's tutelage, it was because of my own experience as an older woman."
Margolyes is working a similarly magical transformation on Madame Arcati in the new Melbourne Theatre Company production of Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit. And, coincidentally, the first ghost that Madame Arcati conjures up -- that of Elvira -- is played by Margolyes's old companion and sparring partner Pamela Rabe.
Rather than play her as vague or dotty, Margolyes puts some lead into Arcati's crystal balls. There's genuine enthusiasm and delight in her responses to the ectoplasmic machinations. The role is funny precisely because it is played with facile sincerity. With gravity and honesty.
"If you show vulnerability, people accept it. When you open out, when you reveal... That's where you are most powerful."
At sixty-two and a half, Margolyes gave up being shyly polite long ago.
"If I was a different kind of person, I could just shut up and mutter platitudes. But I can't do that. I've always been a loud mouth. And people are always telling me to be quiet, including the Queen!"
A good old fashioned middle class Jewish socialist, whose family migrated from Belarus to England in the 19th century, Margolyes saves her harshest words for the present government of Israel. When she says "Fundamentalism is destroying everything" she isn't talking about the suicide bombers. She's referring to the flat-earthers in the Knesset.
"I was conceived during an air-raid. And I don't know whether that's had an effect on me. I think it's probably made me a bit jumpy." She says this with a twinkle so bright you could hunt kangaroo by it.
Though she is contentedly childless -- the last of a rather stunted line -- Margolyes feels that she is a part of the heritage of the English tongue. The language itself is her antecedent and her descendent.
"I feel really thrilled that English is my first language. To have Shakespeare, Dickens, Blake... God! That's massive. A real blessing." But with those kinds of writers on our team, she reckons, we should be doing much much better. Margolyes fears that language -- "the currency of our thought" -- is being used to obfuscate instead of communicate, more and more. To hide rather than inform. To tell lies instead of telling truths.
Paradoxically, Margolyes believes that the 'lie' of acting can be a powerful force for truth. "The most precious thing an actor can do is to build bridges between people, to show one half of a community what the other half is like. If you can truthfully show what a person is like -- even to somebody who might be unsympathetic -- it can open eyes. And that, finally, is our job as artists."
2007 Australian - New Zealand Tour Dates: Dickens' Women
REVIEW OF THE SEPTEMBER 21, 2007 PERFORMANCE
Charles Dickens wrote two kinds of women: the innocent and the grotesque. Bland young angels and creepy, painted, psychotic, blowzy harridans. (I can think of one exception, an innocent who has been raised for the sole purpose of luring men into her lair, like a Siren, and then destroying them...)
The innocents, pretty much, are indistinguishable. They're all 17 and utterly utterly nice. Dream girls. An old man's fantasy. The grotesques, by contrast, are unique. Each has a pathology all of her own.
There's no prize for guessing which are more fun to play, especially for a character actor of the calibre of Miriam Margolyes! (They're also much more fun to watch!)
So, first and foremost, Dickens' Women is a freak show. It strings together scenes from various novels: monologues, little dramas and a couple of self-contained readings from a lectern, a replica of Dickens' own... which he designed himself.
As much as Margolyes loves Dickens' novels, she's the first to admit that his ingenues are a little bit "icky" and that the man himself was a misogynist pig. (He once likened his wife to a donkey before cruelly dumping her for a woman almost thirty years younger than himself.)
In the course of two hours, Margolyes neatly sketches Dickens' life story and places him on the analyst's couch. Tales from his life are then illustrated by the scenes that those events inspired in his novels.
It's all immense fun, even if you're unfamiliar with the novels. Even if, like me, you can't stand Dickens as a writer.
There's an earthiness and a cleverness that feeds into Margolyes' acting. Yes, she can pull faces and pull off dozens of voices with the best of British, but there's so much more to her and her work. There's a creative spirit and a restlessness which helps keep a well-honed and well-drilled work fresh and utterly live.
How lucky we are that this extraordinary actor now calls Australia home.
A shortened version of this review was published in the September 25 2007 edition of the Herald Sun.
Dickens' Women by Miriam Margolyes (performer) and Sonia Fraser (director), with John Martin at the piano. Presented by Andrew McKinnon.
Labels: interview, Miriam Margolyes, recycling, tour dates