On Wednesday night at the Yale Center for British Art, British actress Miriam Margolyes celebrated Charles Dickens’ 200th birthday through a performance of “Dickens’ Women.”
Accompanied only by pianist and Yale professor Wei-Yi Yang, Margolyes brought to life 23 of Dickens’ female characters while also examining Dickens’ own life. Before an audience of roughly 70 Yale and New Haven community members, Margolyes, known by the public for her screen role as professor Pomona Sprout in the Harry Potter series, recited, acted and read from Dickens’ fictional work and non-fiction sources such as letters. Margolyes, who researched and wrote the show with Sonia Fraser, highlighted the influence Dickens’ life had on his work, especially in his development of female characters based on the women in his life.
“I’ve had a passion for Dickens,” she said from the stage. “I learned from him that literature is not peripheral to life.”
Margolyes linked each character she impersonated to a woman in Dickens’ life that had made an impression on him, including his nanny, grandmother, sister-in-law and various love interests. She acted out her impersonations of the characters in the chronological order in which their inspirations appeared in Dickens’ life. Accordingly, Margolyes emphasized throughout her performance that she was also chronicling Dickens’ own life.
She even said she sees Miss Havisham from “Great Expectations” — who is also her favorite Dickensian character — as a description of Dickens himself.
Over the course of her performance, Margolyes moved seamlessly from each character to a totally different character, to the narrator and to herself — a versatility for which she is known.
“I hope I am channeling [the characters],” she said. “What I can do, which is unusual, is switch characters very easily. Most actors can’t — that’s why I’m special.”
“Dickens’ Women” was brought to Yale through the efforts of Jane Nowosadko, the manager of programs at the British Art Center, who has been planning this event in honor of the literary master’s birthday for over 16 months.
“I try to look for programs that will enhance and reflect our collection,” she said, adding that Paul Mellon, who donated the museum’s initial pieces, was a Dickens fan.
Throughout her performance, Margolyes addressed typical somber Dickensian themes such as death, avarice, lust and poverty, but kept a comedic tone. The audience responded positively to Margolyes’ tone, if only after some congenial prompting from the actress herself.
“You can clap, you know,” she told the audience.
Five audience members interviewed responded enthusiastically to the performance, and the crowd was animated throughout, giving Margolyes a standing ovation at the show’s conclusion.
Robin Ruth, a New Haven community member, said she felt Margolyes had given an “enchanting and stunning performance.” Professor Janice Carlisle, who teaches Dickens, attended with members of her seminar.
“I teach Dickens, and this is my third time [seeing “Dickens’ Women”] — it gets better and better,” she said, adding that Margolyes teaches her more each time about what the characters are like.
“Dickens’ Women” is an Olivier award-nominated production first performed in 1992.