Review: Dickens' Women ~ theatre notes

Monday, September 24, 2007

Review: Dickens' Women

Dickens’ Women by Miriam Margolyes and Sonia Fraser, directed by Sonia Fraser. With Miriam Margolyes, live music performed by John Martin. Lighting design by Mark Hammer, design consultant Nick Dare. Playhouse @ the Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne. September 20. Until September 23. Touring Brisbane, Frankston, Hobart, Sydney, Newcastle, Parramatta, Adelaide, Perth and Canberra until November 25. Details here.

According to the novelist Milan Kundera, Charles Dickens is the model of a sentimental writer. And he adds that sentimentality doesn’t stem, as is commonly supposed, from an excess of feeling, but from the lack of it.

This strikes me as a particularly acute observation, one that Miriam Margolyes’ one-woman tribute to Dickens’ writing tends to confirm rather than contest. Neither is there any escaping the misogyny that ran through Dickens’ writing and private life.

Unmarried women of a certain age brought out his cruel gift for caricature. His treatment of his wife Catherine, whom he bundled out of his house in 1858 after 22 years of marriage, publicly humiliating her with open letters in newspapers about her unfitness as a wife and mother, caused his daughter Kate to comment: “My father was a wicked man… We like to think of our geniuses as great characters - but we can't.”

Kundera’s insight is the truth beneath Oscar Wilde’s celebrated bon mot that “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing”. Margolyes quotes Wilde with relish as she gently satirises Dickens’ literary obsession with angelic 17-year-old girls – a result of the early death of his sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth, who lived with him and Catherine.

He never got over Mary's death - as Margolyes comments dryly, “Dickens never got over anything that happened to him” - and wanted to be buried with her. His married life featured a series of obsessions with younger women. One feels ever more sorry for Catherine.

In Dickens’ Women, Margolyes delivers a theatrical essay that explores some of Dickens’ characters and their real-life inspirations. She ranges over the breadth of his writing, from David Copperfield and Dombey & Sons to lesser known works such as The Uncommercial Traveller and his Collected Letters, making the kind of autobiographical literary readings that I normally detest. However, in Dickens’ case, these readings seem to be justified – he drew shamelessly and transparently from his personal life.

For all her critique – Dickens’ Women is anything but hagiography – Margolyes communicates her great love for his writing, and excavates some passages, mainly from minor characters, that demonstrate real feeling. It’s a fond reading that explains why Dickens' work remains so popular, and why he has influenced writers as various as Fyodor Dostoevsky, George Orwell or Peter Carey.

The show is a stylish example of the kind of theatre that Barry Humphries’ great invention, Sandy Stone, might have called “a very nice night’s entertainment”. The dramaturgy and design allude to Dickens’ popular public readings of his work – the set even includes a reproduction of the lectern he personally designed for his tours. And it’s ingeniously lit, making the most of the minimal touring set.

If Margolyes is never less than virtuosic, she is seldom more. Her serial transformations into a dizzying range of characters are a show-stopping demonstration of the actor’s craft but, like all such demonstrations, have rather the air of a party turn. I sometimes found myself admiring her breath control rather than the show itself.

But there was a little something even for me. The show finishes with a real surprise: a monologue by Miss Flyte, the impoverished eccentric from Bleak House who is awaiting the results of an interminable Chancery suit. She attends court every day, waiting in vain for a judgement in her favour, and keeps a number of birds that she plans to release when the good news arrives. Several generations of birds have already died in their cages.

As she lists their absurd names, a touch of surreality enters the theatre, and suddenly the shades of Kafka and Beckett attend the stage. Miss Flyte, trapped in the meaningless coils of jurisprudence and deceptive hope, is a comically poignant precursor to figures like Josef K in The Trial, or to Winnie in Happy Days.

If it had all been like that, Dickens’ Women might have been breath-taking theatre; but then perhaps the Arts Centre crowd, who clapped enthusiastically after every turn, might have enjoyed it rather less.

Still, I confess that the passion Dickens inspires remains a bit of a mystery to me, as is the attraction of this kind of star-vehicle theatre, no matter how accomplished it is. About half way through, I begin to wonder what the point is. Reader, I was a teensy bit bored. But there’s no denying that most people were enthralled.

A shorter version of this review is published in today's Australian.


Bardassa said...

Did you see Simon Callow do a similar turn about Dickens during the 2005 Melbourne Festival? I found myself comparing the two as Callow and Margolyes insist that just about every character in Dickins is based on someone he knew or met. Margolyes, however, does not mention the train crash that possibly contributed to Dickens' mental state and may have caused his harsh behavior to his wife. Oddly, she didn't mention his cruelest action either when he had a wall built down the middle of their bedroom.

Alison Croggon said...

No, I missed that one (I don't even remember it being on!) Maybe Dickens is a rite of passage for English actors of a certain stature? And did he really build a wall through the bedroom?? Gosh. There's an episode of Steptoe and Son with the same idea. Maybe they got it from him.

Chris Boyd said...

Ah, the mystery of The Mystery of Charles Dickens! It was 2002, Bardassa, not 2005. It was one of those touring shows umbrellad (or should that be 'umbrellaed'?) by the Festival. Here's a review of the Sydney season, two weeks before it got to Melbourne.

Alison Croggon said...

That's an extremely fine review, Mr Boyd. Thanks for the pointer. (I didn't know you were doing an online archive - is this an ongoing project?)

Bardassa said...

That long ago! I remember him - projecting his spittle as far as his voice - as though it were only a couple of years ago.

Chris Boyd said...

Thanks Alison, I hope you didn't mind me linking in the comment. (A practice I usually abhor!) And, yes, it's an on-going thing, an archive I top up when there's a return season or something vaguely relevant.

Apart from being in the pit at a Public Image Ltd concert, Bardassa, the most spit I have ever had rain down on me was at the English Shakespeare Company's Richard II. I was front and centre. (Down down it came like glistering Phaeton!!!)


Bardassa said...

The English Shakespeare Co was still most enlivening Shakespeare I ever saw. They can rain down spit on me and it would be as joyous as confetti at Eurovision