Friday, April 10, 2015

Theatre: The Importance of Being Miriam (★★★½)

Miriam Margolyes
With John Martin
Heath Ledger Theatre
April 7 - 11

She’s smarter than she first appears, is Miriam Margolyes. After a florid overture – Yes We Have No Bananas of all things – by her pianist John Martin, the “short fat” (her words) actress cruised onto Matthew Aberline’s set of chaise lounges, armchairs and oversized books. There followed a self-deprecating introduction about auditions and the limitations of her singing voice, before she led her eager audience through (I kid you not) I’m Henry VIII, I am and Daisy, Daisy.
She’d landed slap bang in the middle of their nostalgic comfort zone, but it hardly suggested the next couple of hours were likely to be either riveting or enlightening.
As it turned out, they were both.

The next time Margolyes talked about auditioning, there was blood on her script; the next time she mentioned Daisy it was in a harrowing story of her beloved, stroke-stricken, mother.
As anyone who’s seen her epic appearances on Graham Norton’s talk show will testify, there’s more to Margolyes than meets the eye. She’s an insinuating, fearless, storyteller with a gift for impersonation that she uses to marvellous effect in stories about an embarrassing encounter with the Queen and a revealing one with Maggie Smith. She performs Gertrude Stein and a Companion with Pamela Rabe for two thousand naked lesbians in Michigan and turns Cuban for Baz Luhrmann in Romeo + Juliet.
She loves great stories, and those who tell them, from William Shakespeare to Oscar Wilde, Henry Lawson to Clive James, above all her muse and meal ticket Charles Dickens. She savours their words and characters: Mr Bumble and Mrs Corney appraise each other over tea in Oliver Twist, and Lady Bracknell scolds Miss Prism. Clive James contemplates his approaching death, Shakespeare compares his lover to a summer’s day (while Martin craftily tinkles The Moon’s A Harsh Mistress in the background), Gertrude gently seduces Alice in a Paris park, and Helen Keller breaks free of her lightless, silent world with Anne Sullivan.
A couple of the characters Margolyes samples, Miss Havisham and Lady Bracknell, escape her, but this may be a limitation of the show’s format rather than her gifts.
In any event, these are infelicities of slight account. Perhaps the only significant thing lacking for me was insight into her motivation to become an Australian citizen, although she movingly describes her induction by then Prime Minister Julia Gillard in 2013.
I don’t doubt that would be an interesting story, as were all those about life and love, literary and otherwise, told by the Important Ms Margolyes.

This review appeared in The West Australian 9.4.15            

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