When I met Miriam Margolyes at her friend’s cozy apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, she was sporting a bold floral house dress and a shock of wild white hair that seemed at odds with her upper-crust British accent. While she checked emails, she asked if I wanted anything to eat or drink, then admitted with a sheepish smile and a wave of the hand that she had nothing to offer. Then, finished with her email, she settled back on her couch to discuss “Dickens’ Women,” her solo show about Charles Dickens’s female characters. The piece, which she co-wrote with Sonia Fraser, is currently on a nationwide tour, opening in New York on November 9 and playing in December in Sanibel, Fla., and in Chicago.
For the 71-year-old Oxford-raised and Cambridge-educated Margolyes, who played Professor Pomona Sprout in the Harry Potter films and has appeared in such movies as “Yentl” and “The Age of Innocence,” standing onstage alone is a relatively new experience. She says that the impulse to create “Dickens’ Women” was born of a desire to draw parallels between the women in Dickens’s life and his vivid fictional creations. The play brings together elements of lecture, standup comedy and intense drama, while allowing Margolyes to add her own contemporary sensibility. For example, Margolyes presents Mrs. Micawber from “David Copperfield” not as a buffoon, but as a slightly pathetic woman with an unexpected sweetness. Similarly, Margolyes, who is openly gay, offers an interpretation of Miss Wade from “Little Dorrit” as a lesbian.
During our conversation, Margolyes, whose parents were middle-class, observant British Jews — her dad was a physician, her mom a successful businesswoman who ran a string of boarding houses for Oxford students — asserted that being Jewish informs her actor’s aesthetic more than anything else. “It’s the ease with which I can feel joy, despair, laughter and tears,” she said. “I don’t think Jewish women have to delve to find emotion; I think emotion is trembling on the brink for every Jewish woman. It comes with the territory, and it’s very useful in this show.”
To this day, Margolyes is a member of an Orthodox synagogue in London. She fasts on Yom Kippur (and always has), maintains the dietary traditions during Passover and has never eaten bacon or ham, not even at a restaurant.
Margolyes is keenly aware that her fellow congregants probably view her homosexuality and her political philosophies with a jaundiced eye, but she says she feels neither con- tradictions within herself nor the need to reconcile herself to others. Inconsistency is fine with her, and, indeed, when she lived in Los Angeles Margolyes was a member of a liberal reconstructionist synagogue. Perhaps most striking is her rejection of religion, despite her participation in religious ritual. “I don’t believe it will bring me closer to God,” she said. “I don’t believe in God. But I believe in tradition and do it for my parents, whom I loved very much.”