I arrive in the underbelly of the Opera House to interview Miriam Margolyes, and find her waiting in a corridor with fellow cast members from the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of The Way Of The World. She takes one look at me and grabs my hand, marches me into her dressing room and announces in a loud voice, Now this is where I’m going to suck you off.
Oddly, I had expected nothing less. Margolyes is a notoriously bawdy interview subject -“ she once reduced Michael Parkinson to teary laughter and a choking silence -“ so I anticipated a high crass factor. Her performances on television and film also suggest a woman on the edge of losing control, in ways frightening and hilarious. Anyone who remembers Margolyes as Infanta Maria Escalosa in Blackadder, the Nurse in Romeo+Juliet or even Miss Crawley in BBC’s ripping Vanity Fair will know what I mean.
It’s a sense of the ribald that makes her perfect for a William Congreve comedy, wearing a corset so tight she says her boobs are out for a walk and that she looks like a female impersonator. History books about the era and the collected works of Congreve on her dressing room table suggest a more serious attitude though, and pretty soon we’re both very po-faced.
As a character actress you always do get the extreme roles and this is certainly one of the most extreme roles that was ever written, Margolyes says. She’s a very, very famous old monster. Now I’m the right age to play her, at least I don’t have to act old -¦
I’m 61 and I’m terribly conscious of it at the moment -¦ I’m the oldest person in the company -¦ but it’s just the most lovely thing to think I’m starting a new life. It’s invigorating.
Margolyes only recently moved to Australia from the UK and bought a house in the Southern Highlands, an area she fell in love with after working on Babe. (She was the voice of Fly, Babe’s adopted sheepdog mother.) She tells me she loves the Australian character and our sense of fair play, and I look a little surprised. The point is taken.
I think it’s a little bit threatened at the moment by the attitude towards asylum seekers because as an immigrant, as a Jew, I think people have got to keep their humanity boiling. And it’s not quite boiling at the moment, it’s just simmering. I feel sad about that -¦ she says. Most people are just people trying to get away from lousy systems and trying to make life better for themselves. We, who are immigrants, and most of us are, should remember that.
I move on to prejudice of a different kind. Margolyes performed the lead role in the lesbian play Any Woman Can in 1975, as well as making occasional appearances for Gay Sweatshop. She also told an interviewer in 1979 she was deliberately unmarried and suggested the reporter add that an evil leer played about her lips and there was a twinkle in her eye. Is this true?
That’s true, she laughs, but spotting exactly where I’m going, she heads me off at the pass. It’s always amazing the things that people ask you, because people always want to know about your sex life and it always irritates me. I hate talking about it. I like doing it, I don’t like talking about it and I certainly don’t like talking about it so that it’s kind of reported by somebody else, whoever they are and then read by a lot of people that I don’t know -¦
To protect myself, I said to The Guardian newspaper in London, -˜Really I don’t think it’s anybody’s business who’s in my cunt. All you have to know is that there’s somebody there, and it’s lovely.’ And my God they printed it! I was sure they wouldn’t, you see! But they did it. So there I was, left, if you like, with egg on my cunt, Margolyes says.
I absolutely understand that you have a job to do and that your readers are interested in who’s in my cunt, and I just have to say, well, tough titties, she smiles, then adds with a disarming chutzpah, but you can tell your readers that they can contact me because I do rent out an incredible house. I’m soon shown the photos and the house is magnificent, and I’m given an email address: email@example.com.
It’s all very Sydney; Miriam Margolyes has arrived.
The Way Of The World runs until 22 March at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, at 8pm. Tickets range from $48 to $59 and may be booked on 9250 1777 or at www.sydneytheatre.com.au.