Miriam Margolyes Is Dickens of an Actress

Observant Actress Reinvents Legendary Female Characters

Courtesy Richard Jordan

By Simi Horwitz

Published November 10, 2012, issue of November 16, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • For Moroccan Jews, the end of Passover means Mimouna. Terbhou ou Tse'dou! (good luck) How do you celebrate?
  • Calling all Marx Brothers fans!
  • What's it like to run the Palestine International Marathon as a Jew?
  • Does Israel have a racism problem?
  • This 007 hates guns, drives a Prius, and oh yeah — goes to shul with Scarlett Johansson's dad.
  • Meet Alvin Wong. He's the happiest man in America — and an observant Jew. The key to happiness? "Humility."
  • "My first bra was a training bra, a sports bra that gave the illusion of a flat chest."
  • "If the people of Rwanda can heal their broken hearts and accept the Other as human, so can we."
  • Aribert Heim, the "Butcher of Mauthausen," died a free man. How did he escape justice?
  • This guy skipped out on seder at his mom's and won a $1 million in a poker tournament. Worth it?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.