The astonishing Miriam Margolyes is wasted in the greatest hits show The Importance of Being Miriam.By Peter Craven.
Miriam Margolyes’s cast of character
In this story
The Importance of Being Miriam, the new one-woman show by the incomparable Miriam Margolyes, demonstrates at every point the grandeur of this great actor’s talent but, alas, is not the most appropriate display case for it.
The difficulty starts with the title. Whether consciously or not it’s a take on the Micheál Mac Liammóir’s famous one-man show of 50 or more years ago, The Importance of Being Oscar, in which the great Irish actor, the Dublin Gate mentor of Orson Welles and Iago in his film of Othello, depicted the life and work of Oscar Wilde from The Importance of Being Earnest to “De Profundis” and “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”, a tremendous feast of comedy and drama in the context of one of the most riveting lives ever lived.
Miriam Margolyes’s isn’t. We get her anecdotes about meeting the Queen and about how Maggie Smith said Oxford High School should name something after Miriam, not after her. These, familiar from conversation and interview, are milked. It is an objectively dazzling thing that Margolyes can turn into Maggie Smith with a flick of her flawless impersonator’s voice so that we not only hear that venomous reed of a voice but “see” the great dame’s glowering face.
This is what happened with hallucinatory magnificence all the way through Dickens’ Women and it happens in remarkable flashes here. There is a snippet, the early recollection of Juliet’s toddlerhood from the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet, done in broad Warwickshire. There is the imposing galleon of a Lady Bracknell that has an absolutely burnished grandeur, and a Miss Havisham of great embittered sweetness.
But there is a case for saying that the knockout moments of the show, such as the swirling buffoonery of her Mr Bumble on the con, are anthologised from a greater show.
Miriam Margolyes is an absolutely extraordinary character actress not because her equipment is modest but because she can turn into any character of her conjuring. Anyone who has heard her complete reading of Dickens’ Oliver Twist, with its incarnation – there’s no other word – of the voice of the small boy Oliver, her sinister insinuation of Fagin, knows they are in the vicinity of genius.
She’s also read the whole of Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in a spry lethal Edinburgh lilt that yields nothing to Maggie Smith. But a woman who could do this could do anything. She could play Ibsen’s Rat-Wife, she could play Volumnia, she could play Mistress Quickly and make her voice throb with the uncomprehended sadness of the world. She doesn’t have to take to the stage as that diverting old charmer Miriam Margolyes. And although she says there’s nothing important about being Miriam, the underlying premise of this show (which is just a bit vulgar) is that the starriness of Miriam’s talent is what’s supposed to lure us into the circus tent.
None of which is to deny that some of what we get is remarkable and all of it is entertaining. But the grand moments of the autobiographical story are the things like the story of her Jewish jeweller grandfather pleading to a kilted Scottish officer for her father not to have to go to the front in World War I. Or the heart-rending moment when all her stroke-victim mother can cry out, in a single intensity of articulation, is “Jam!”
The Importance of Being Miriam, which started in Sydney this week and will then tour Brisbane, Canberra and select regional venues, contains extraordinary epiphanies in what is a bit of a middlebrow show that has been slapped together by a director who specialises in musical tours and elementary maintenance work rather than creating drama. And the talking part of Margolyes’s perfectly fine pianist, John Martin, not to mention his singing (he can’t), are lapses in judgement.
Miriam Margolyes is not a star, she is a character: in a very attractive way, lovely to know, sharp and arresting on talk shows. But it is in the high and mighty art of acting, where personality is a matter of embodiment not assertion, that she is a thing of wonder.
We should treasure the fact that she is an adoptive Australian and give her the greatest riches of the theatre to interpret. If you want one-woman shows, she could do Shakespeare’s women as well as anyone alive and it’s not hard to imagine that, like Claire Bloom who has done just that, she could also perform versions of whole novels. But just on the Shakespeare, think of her doing Mistress Quickly’s lament for Falstaff or indeed – gender would hardly stop her – the scenes between Falstaff and Shallow.
And then, of course, there’s Beckett’s Happy Days – that soaring aria for a stranded woman that would give the fullest possible range to Miriam Margolyes’s voice with its extraordinary soprano quality and its dazzling array of tone colours and its ability to conjure the heights and depths and breadth of a world of sorrow and laughter.
Margolyes won a London award in 2009 for her performance as Nell, the woman in the rubbish bin, in Simon McBurney’s production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame for Complicite, with Mark Rylance as Hamm and McBurney himself as Clov.
In the current, alarmingly awful production of Endgame at the Melbourne Theatre Company until next week, Julie Forsyth is a perfectly credible Nell and Rhys McConnochie is alright as Nagg. There is also an impressively architectural, if not very functional, set from Callum Morton.
But the leads are terrible. Luke Mullins is not an actor of any range and in the role of Clov (originally intended for Robert Menzies) he sits on one shrill note and loses all the poised desolation and bleak wonderment and unearthly sadness of the role. And then, like a cartoon of wilful ghastliness, there is Colin Friels’s barking, horrible Hamm.
In the role that Patrick Magee played in the first English production and which Sir Donald Wolfit recorded for BBC Radio, Friels delivers a berserk, ocker Hamm who seems to have come running from a production of David Williamson’s The Removalists, full of empty, bullshitting fury. I’m surprised Sam Strong, who directed last year’s The Sublime so well, didn’t walk out of this production.
It left the audience members shaking their heads, with some of them trying to hear the power of the text despite the acting and some actually doubting the efficacy of one of the greatest plays since World War II. There was absolutely no reason for thinking of Endgame as a chamber music Lear or a redaction of tragedy, where the colours of storm and fury, of pity and terror, have been wiped from the wall while leaving their traces. No sense of a world we had seen extinguished without having seen it lit.
I would much rather hear Miriam Margolyes, in or outside of a dustbin, read every last stony word of lamentation, and every loony tune of life’s enigma as Beckett wrote it, than suffer to relive an instant of this Endgame.
In fact, I would relish the prospect of her doing it.
BALLET Moscow Ballet La Classique – Sleeping Beauty
State Theatre, Sydney, April 24 and 26
THEATRE Boys Will Be Boys
Wharf Theatre, Sydney, until May 16
THEATRE Summer of the Seventeenth Doll
Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide, until May 16
VISUAL ART Mambo: 30 Years of Shelf Indulgence
Ambush Gallery, Sydney, until April 26
CIRCUS Le Noir: the Dark Side of Cirque
Adelaide Festival Centre, until May 2
DANCE 2015 Victorian Dance Festival
Various venues, Ballarat, until April 19
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 18, 2015 as "Cast of character". Subscribe here.