This production is a tour de force by a genius of the stage at the height of her powers.
Adelaide audiences will not quickly forget Miriam Margolyes’ dazzling performance in the autobiographical character medley The Importance of Being Miriam, which opened at the Dunstan Playhouse on Wednesday night.
The show is Margolyes’ charismatic masterclass in communicating human experience.
It runs like a tangential memoir, anchoring briefly to important moments in the actress’s life, then darting off into a scene from Great Expectations, a melancholy reading from a Clive James poem or a recount of Margolyes’ hilarious, outrageous encounter with Queen Elizabeth.
From the outset, she assures the audience that The Importance of Being Miriam is “just a cheeky title” which she hopes isn’t too conceited.
In principle, it can’t help but be conceited: the show is about the most important influences on the life of the actress, packed with selected scenes from Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Oscar Wilde which don’t quite fit any particular structure, interspersed with readings from the works of Margolyes’ favourite authors and personal stories from her own life.
In practice, though, the mesmerising force of Margolyes’ performance flattens everything in its path, including the normal rules of good theatre.
No one wants anything but for this stout and impish 73-year-old to do what she so prodigiously does best.
Margolyes is able to instantaneously switch, in body and soul, back and forth between the complete physical personalities of around 20 wildly different and explosive characters from English literature, often in dialogue with one another.
In one scene she is holding court, expertly swapping between Dickens’ monstrous Mr Bumble and his silly little interlocutor, Mrs Corney. In another, Wilde’s Lady Bracknell is excoriating the hapless Miss Prism.
Next, Margolyes is recounting the experience of unexpectedly performing before an audience of thousands of naked lesbians – “they gave us a standing ovation” – then she is pulling off a haunting, devastating Gertrude Stein; in another moment, she’s an hilarious Dame Maggie Smith.
The roller-coaster ride is smoothed out somewhat by the accompaniment of acclaimed classical pianist John Martin.
We have to forgive his unfortunate bursts of dad-at-a-wedding singing, and for a ham-fisted attempt at putting a Shakespearean sonnet to music, because when he isn’t doing those things, his piano playing builds musical bridges that force the show’s choppy structure to make more sense. It also contributes to the pathos of the few really sad moments.
Ultimately, though, The Importance of Being Miriam is a well-deserved celebration of the incomparable talent that is Miriam Margolyes.
And so it should be. Brilliant.
The Importance of Being Miriam: A Passionate Discovery of Words & Music is playing at the Dunstan Playhouse until April 2.
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