Having recently read Colonial Voices, I was very much aware of what an anachronistic performance Miriam Margolyes’ ‘Dickens’ Women’ is. Generations past may have been the audience for a series of readings and impersonations, but it seems a particularly quaint genre now: a “nice night’s entertainment” as Barry Humphries’ Sandy Stone might have said.
But to describe this performance as merely “readings and impersonations” is to undersell it, because it is more like a theatrical essay, with a clear argument that is supported by the anecdotes and examples that she weaves into the work. She argues that Dickens wove his own biography into the female characters he created, colouring them with his own anger, sense of betrayal, and often misogyny. She moves back and forwards from argument and explication, to readings and then to performance of both male and female characters, sometimes in soliloquy, sometimes in dialogue.
The performance opens with Sairey Gamp from Martin Chuzzlewit, and I must admit that it took me a couple of minutes to recognize and recollect her. Would I know who she was playing each time? I wondered, aware that even though I have read quite a few Dickens, I haven’t read them all and I often forget which character appeared where. But I need not have feared: she wove into the narrative a clear identification of who each character was, often with a bit of contextualizing information. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t read Dombey and Son, or The Uncommercial Traveller or The Old Curiosity Shop.
Margolyes has been performing this show since 1989 and it is a very tight, confident performance. In creating her 23 characters, she uses everything – her body, her beautiful clear voice, timing, lighting, gesture and stance- and at times, she almost seemed to change physically before your eyes. I found myself scarcely daring to breathe watching her embody Miss Havisham, afraid that the spell would break. It didn’t.
A very nice night’s entertainment indeed.