HELEN SIMS spoke briefly with Miriam Margolyes in Sydney about her solo show ‘Dickens’ Women’, ahead of performances in December.

BAFTA award winning British actress Miriam Margolyes is coming to New Zealand as part of her tour of her solo show Dickens’ Women. She is an accomplished veteran of both stage and screen, with diverse projects including Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet, Magnolia and the Harry Potter films. Her full portfolio is astounding and can be accessed at miriammargolyes.com. It is safe to say she is one of the foremost and most sought after character actresses in the English speaking film and theatre industry. She has won numerous awards for her film, stage and voice work and in 2002 she was awarded an OBE for her services to drama. She describes receiving an OBE as a “nice surprise”: “I’m not sure I deserve it – I do what I love and that is a blessing and a gift in itself.”

She developed Dickens’ Women in 1989 for the Edinburgh Festival and has since toured it all over the world; accompanied by pianist John Martin. The show brings to life 23 characters, both real and fictional, connected with Dickens. It was nominated for an Olivier Award after her season in New York’s West End. She describes it as a career highlight and “one of the proudest things” in her life and it has been critically acclaimed.

How did this show originate? What drew you to Dickens’ female characters in particular? What do you think about the treatment of women in his novels?

I’ve been thinking about it for a long time. I have loved Dickens ever since I read Oliver Twist. I’m surprised so many people have come and seen it, but I’m delighted. Audiences react so well to the show and the reviews have been very good. The best audiences have actually been Indians – they really know their Dickens.

Pianist John Martin is quite essential to me personally so I’m not alone out there and he plays a part to change and enhance the mood in the show.

I am a woman. Dickens’ relations with women were extremely complex. Personally, he was very interesting and different from what people think. The characters are based on real women in Dickens’ life and where they parallel with his fictional characters. I love the contrast between the goodness of the prose and the badness of the man. His daughter once said ‘he was a very wicked man’ and no-one seems to know that but they will after they see my show.

Do you have a favourite character among them?

My favourite has changed over time. People who have seen the show several times tell me the show has changed over time. But the show hasn’t changed, I have changed. My opinions have changed. When I first started Mrs Gamp (a frequently intoxicated midwife and nurse from Martin Chuzzlewit) was my favourite – I open the show with her. Now it is Miss Flite, (a slightly mad older woman and frequent attendee at the court of Chancery in Bleak House) who I close the show with. Basically I think I’ve just gotten older.

I notice you have a wide range of interests including genealogy – is the acting and devising process a bit like that for you?

You could say it is more like a passion for genealogy! It is like acting, excavating a character. I have family in Auckland, although I’m not sure I’ll get time to see them. I’m meeting with the Jewish community in Wellington (Margolyes is Jewish and actively supports associated causes). I’m very much looking forward to seeing Wellington, it’s my final stop on the tour and I want to celebrate.

You also have a wide range of charities that you are associated with – do you think it is important for high profile artists to be involved in charity?

Yes. It’s a personal choice but I believe that people who have been lucky have an obligation to put something back into the community. It’s a selfish life otherwise.

Margolyes has a slick on-line profile, available to fans and directors alike. We briefly discuss the importance of actors’ taking an active interest in their own marketing:

Yes, I think that is vital. Particularly the internet profile. Actor’s are really just small businesses.

Margolyes is being called to finish up, so I ask her a final quick question: Given that you have played so many notable characters in you life, who would you want to play you in the movie of your life?

(Without hesitation) Cate Blanchett. She’s a very good actress but I’m very different to her so it would be a good test!