Openly lesbian British actress Miriam Margolyes (The Age of Innocence, Romeo + Juliet) is known for being outrageous and fearless. Just do an online search for Margolyes' appearances on the BBC-TV program The Graham Norton Show to see her blithely sharing unexpectedly and hilariously frank stories of sexual acts and bodily functions.
"Graham is a very skilled interviewer and he allows you to be yourself," said Margolyes when asked about her unfiltered storytelling style during a telephone interview from Toronto. "I've always been like that, actually."
But Chicago audiences will likely see a more "respectable" side of Margolyes now that she has brought her Olivier Award-nominated play Dickens' Women to Chicago Shakespeare Theater through Dec. 22 as part of its World's Stage series. Chicago is the last city of Margolyes' 10-month tour of Dickens' Women across the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and North America to time with the 200th anniversary of author Charles Dickens' birth.
"I am passionately addicted to Charles Dickensthe man, the characters, the books, the prose," Margolyes said. "He's been really the main man in my life, I suppose."
Margolyes traced her obsession to Dickens when she first read Oliver Twist at age 11. She also seriously studied Dickens at Newnham College Cambridge.
"I wanted for many years to try and find a way of putting (Dickens) on stage," Margolyes said. "Finally I got together with a colleague from work, Sonia Fraserwe were both working together in radio for the BBCwe devised it together."
Originally, Dickens' Women wasn't meant to be a one-woman show, but after a fellow actor dropped out, Fraser and Margolyes reconfigured the piece out of necessity. Dickens' Women originally played in 1989 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and later transferred to London.
Throughout the show, often with piano accompaniment, Margolyes uses Dickens' very dramatic textual dialogue to bring to life iconic characters like Mrs. Micawber from David Copperfield and the disturbing Mrs. Gamp from Martin Chuzzlewit. These characters are included with many biographical Dickens facts about the real women in his life.
When asked which Dickens character was her favorite, Margolyes settled on the embittered and jilted bride Miss Havisham from Great Expectations.
"She wasn't always my favorite, but she has become so as an iconic figure of pathos, malice, misery, resignation and revenge," Margolyes said.
Unlike Miss Havisham's unhappy fate, Margolyes has had a 44-year relationship with a retired Australian academic whom she asks not to name. However, though Margolyes has been publicly open about her sexuality throughout her career, she has controversially stated her opinion that LGBT people shouldn't always come out to everybody.
"I think it's an indulgence," she said. "I get very irritated with people who feel they have an entitlement to throw their entire family into misery because they want to express that they're gay. If you think people are going to find it difficult, don't tell them."
Margolyes knows that this view is very unpopular with the current LGBT activist push for people to not be closeted. But her opinion stems from her own family trauma when her beloved Jewish mother suffered a stroke a few days after Margolyes came out to her in the late 1960s.
"I believe things have gotten much better and of course, I hope for everybody to be able to express their love openly and freely," Margolyes said. "But some people can't cope with it."
As she winds down her world tour of Dickens' Women, Margolyes is looking forward to developing a new stage piece based upon the Pickwick Papers with actor/writer Simon Callow and appearing in the second series of the Australian TV show Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries. They're projects that just add to Margolyes long career that includes playing Professor Sprout in Harry Potter movies to the role of Madame Morrible in the West End and later Broadway production of Wicked.
"I've done a variety of things that a variety of people have seen," Margolyes said, pleased that it isn't just one thing that people instantly recognize her from.
"I'm a fat, old, not very gorgeous-looking woman," Margolyes said, not allowing me to interrupt. "I won't say I'm ugly because I don't think I'm ugly, but I've managed to make a career in theater and film which I think is quite encouraging because people say, 'Oh you can't make a career unless you're gorgeous.'"
And Margolyes warns that the Chicago run of Dickens' Women may be her very last outing performing the piece, especially after such a long tour.
"I'm quite old to be touringI'm 71and it doesn't get easier, I will say that," Margolyes said. "But I very much enjoy meeting new people and doing my genealogy and finding new relatives everywhere. I love doing my family tree which I've been doing for the past 25 years."
Miriam Margolyes in Dickens' Women continues through Saturday, Dec. 22, at Chicago Shakespeare Theater's Upstairs Theatre, 800 E. Grand Ave. Remaining performances are 7:30 p.m. Dec. 19-21 and at 3 and 8 p.m. Dec. 22. Tickets are $50-$60; call 312-595-5600 or visit www.chicagoshakes.com .