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Speaking With... Miriam Margolyes in ‘Dickens’ Women’

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♦ Dec. 18-22

♦ Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand

♦ Tickets, $50-$60

♦ (312) 595-5600;

Updated: January 15, 2013 6:08AM

Behind every great man there’s a great woman. In the case of Charles Dickens, there were quite a few.

Acclaimed British actress Miriam Margolyes, perhaps more familiar to American audiences as Professor Pomona Sprout in the “Harry Potter” film series, is putting the spotlight on 23 of Dickens’ most famous (and some less so) female characters (and the real-life women on which they were based) in her aptly named “Dickens’ Women,” her Olivier Award-nominated one-woman show. It plays through Dec. 22 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, as part of an international celebration of the centennial of the author’s birth.

Margolyes talked to the Sun-Times about her passion for all things Dickens.

Question: What was the genesis of this homage to Dickens’ female characters?

Miriam Margolyes: Sonia Fraser and I wrote this together [in the late 1980s], which was very difficult to do because we’re not writers. It was just something that I had in my head ever since university. It came to fruition when it was first seen by an audience in 1989 at the Edinburgh Festival [Fringe]. It was a two-person show back then. I actually hate being in a one-person show because it’s so very lonely out there. So my pianist becomes very important because the audience just needs to look at someone else. He has no lines but plays mostly to accentuate or change the mood. The music is all contemporary with Dickens’ time.

Q. You are, for all purposes, a Dickens scholar.

MM: I had a kind of longing to be an academic, but I’m not clever enough. I never was. At Cambridge it just became my very special subject.

Q. What’s the most fascinating aspect of Dickens that you’ve uncovered in all your study and research and performance?

MM: It isn’t that I discovered it, but the most fascinating aspect is the difference between the two Dickens — the Dickens that we all know and imagine with Christmas and fellowship, and the real Dickens that was not like that. That was this show is about. It’s that discovery.

Q. How did you choose the roster of Dickens’ women for the show, which boasts Miss Havisham (from “Great Expectations”), Mrs. Micawber (from “David Copperfield”), Miss Flite (from “Bleak House”) and Mrs. Jarley (from “The Old Curiosity Shop”) among others ?

MM: I use the women who were based on the real women in his life and would bring a voice to the biography of the man. Dickens created over 2,000 characters, probably more than any other writer, and many of them are women, and many of those women are wonderful and gripping. So I made a list of all the women I wanted to do and then cut it down to the women who had relevance in his life. Then I cut it down for time. For all the characters I do, the characters that he wrote, I use his words. When I break the “fourth wall” [and speak directly to the audience] I use the words I’ve written. Two works for the price of one.

Q. Which character is the closest to your heart?

MM: Don’t know if it’s the closest to me, but I have three favorites out of the gallery that I present. Mrs. Gamp [from “The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit”]. She is a drunken midwife, and in Victorian times, midwives laid out babies and laid out coffins. So when she was called to someone’s home she never knew which job she had to perform. She had “a face for all occasions,” Dickens wrote. My second favorite is Miss Havisham, and I don’t have to explain why. She is the iconic character who seizes your imagination and never leaves it. One never forgets Miss Havisham, because of her sadness, her malice, her warped nature, the tragedy of disappointment.

The third one is my favorite because, in a sense, I have discovered it. It’s the lesbian Miss Wade from “Little Dorrit.” The word lesbian never comes in to the dialogue, of course, because it was never part of Victorian times. I’m a gay woman myself, and I don’t like Miss Wade; you’re not meant to like her. But there is an incredible poignancy and truth in the depiction of this character that is astonishing for Dickens to be able to, especially since he was a man who loved women so. Everyone who sees my Miss Wade remembers her thereafter.

Q. What do all these women you bring to life say about Dickens the man?

MM: He was a damaged man. In this show, these women explain that damage and show how it was caused and by whom. Of course you could say everyone has to go through those disappointments, but there was something about his nature, which was so sensitive and so flayed by everything that happened to him that he could never let it go. He died at 58, which was very young, even for Victorian times. But he burnt himself out on the many things he did. He was as interesting and poignant and shocking and fascinating as any of the plots he wrote.

Q. And what of Mrs. Dickens who stood by his side through all of this?

MM: At the end of the show it’s Mrs. Dickens that people will really think about. That’s partly why I wanted to do this show, too, because she has gotten such got such a bum rap from everyone. You have to understand, she was completely under his thumb. Everyone who came in contact with Dickens was under his thumb because he was a complete control freak. Poor Catherine Dickens. But she comes out of my show with some dignity restored.

Q. Which female character do you think was Dickens’ favorite?

MM: I can’t really say, but his favorite book was “David Copperfield.” He said that Dora was based on a woman who spurned him as a boy. If Dickens had been alive when Freud was writing he would not have been able to write because Freud would have delved into Dickens’ subconscious using his words, which is what I’m doing in this show. Dickens did not like to be revealed. In my show, Dickens is revealed.

Q Do you re-read pertinent Dickens works as you go along with the show?

MM: I’ve read “Great Expectations” about four times. I think I’ve read “Martin Chuzzlewit” twice. And it’s not one of his best books. I read “Pickwick Papers” only once. But I have to read it again because I’m hoping [British actor] Simon Callow will do a show with me based on it. To prepare for the show I’m re-reading “Bleak House” for the third time at the moment. But I do it for pleasure. The bits of Dickens that I’m insisting people go to are the letters, some 14,000 that he wrote. The soul of the man is revealed in them. People don’t write letters like that anymore.

Q.Which celebrity is a great example of a contemporary Dickens character?

MM: The best modern Dickensian character would be Donald Trump because he looks so silly and is so silly and so arrogant. He’s the perfect Dickensian man. The perfect Dickensian woman? Perhaps Leona Helmsley.

Q. Switching gears, how marvelous is it to be part of the “Harry Potter” legacy through your portrayal of Professor Sprout?

MM: It was a very happy experience. It was nice to be offered the part, albeit a small part, in something that turned out to be an engine of the British film industry. I was only in two of the films, No. 2 and No. 8. I wish I had been in more. I did not read the books. I read Dickens. In a sense I don’t need to read J.K. Rowling or anyone else at all.

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