Sensitized by our consciously feminist times, artistes in any form must take care to avoid sexism in their depiction of women. Yet old habits creep in almost inadvertently, even against intended purposes. Two recent productions proved how delicately one must handle female stage parts—because both, in spite of the best of intentions, unwittingly fell back on cliched dramaturgy: one evoking laughter at cardboard figures of women, the other (Death and the Maiden) converting a case of rape into a thriller.

Bio-dramas have become the in thing, at least in the West. People have a vulgar curiosity about how great men behaved in their personal lives, the more scandalously so, the better. Coupled with this trend goes the decline in reading of classics, so a bio-drama of an author with snippets from his works serves an ideal dual function for laymen who no longer have any desire to read yet know that they should know about some literary geniuses. Demand begets supply; add a dash of feminism and hey presto, you have Dickens’ Women, a Hampstead Theatre production sponsored by British Council at Gyan Manch on April 5.

What can put one off such a package is the faintest scent that it comes to “educate” its viewers. There were moments in Dickens’ Women when the instructive stance dominated, when art and entertainment played second fiddle to the illustrated lecture-demonstration mode. At times, actress Miriam Margolyes became inseparable from an Eng-lit professor relating the salient events of Dickens’ career; theatre came to a standstill. This is where a production like I Bertolt Brecht, although in the same mould, scored much higher by avoiding the academic touch.

On the face of it, Margolyes and director Sonia Fraser scripted a personal response to a score of characters from Dickens’ novels and his life. They do not claim to present a comprehensive or objective account of Dickens’ range of female creations. Consequently, one cannot argue with them for omitting most of Dickens’ famous women’s roles. Still, this critic is unconvinced by their method. For one thing, Margolyes’ two finest and lengthiest portraits, Flora Finching (Little Dorrit) and Mrs Bumble (Oliver Twist), are not new: she acted these parts in the film of the former and the BBC version of the latter. She probably knows them backwards. Take them away and the production nearly collapses.

Secondly, the influence of Michael Slater’s weighty tome Dickens and Women seems all-pervasive, precluding any other opinions. Clearly the duo think of Dickens as a bit of a male chauvinist (as well he might have been, evidenced by his daughter’s remark, “My father did not understand women”). But by projecting only his sexist, flat typecasting of women—as either too virtuous or comically disagreeable—they not only do an injustice to Dickens’ sensitivity, but actually create a counter-productive effect by perpetuating audience enjoyment of these stereotypes. Their presentation defeats their conviction.

Of course, if one can shelve feminism, Margolyes is uproarious in her performance as Finching giving the voluble come-hither to Clennam. She adds a male feather to her cap by doing Bumble the beadle as well in the passage where he courts the future Mrs Bumble; indeed, were it not for chivalry, one might even suggest that her rendering of Bumble himself is the best in the whole bag, for its facial plasticity. Another striking characterization is that of Miss Havisham (Great Expectations), where Margolyes does not really act, but elocutes her dignity and pathos while standing still in one position on stage.

Margolyes rightly gauges and revels in the lately-discovered theatricality of Dickens’ caricatures, reminding one of his own amateur household performances and excellence in comic acting. She also has the long heritage of British one-man shows backing her, but perhaps precisely for this reason, one feels she lacks their versatility. Her mannerisms turn out rather similar after a certain point, failing to distinguish the shorter roles. In such circumstances one looked for relief toward pianist Jonathan Rutherford but his quizzical backwards gaze locked on Margolyes itself unintentionally took on the trappings of an owlish Dickens caricature. Andrew Leigh’s lighting added rich texture to the show.

A footnote for those (including Margolyes) who were at a loss about the phrase “what the dickens”: the noun here has nothing to do with poor Charles—it is a euphemism for “Devil” harking back to the 16th century.

(From The Telegraph, 5 June 1993)