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In conversation with Miriam Margolyes

Miriam Margolyes – icon of film, TV and stage shares her passion for stories that connect people.

By Sarah Corridon

7 Nov 2018

Secure your seats to: The Lady in the Van

Miriam Margolyes – icon of film, TV and stage shares her passion for stories that connect people.

Miriam Margolyes says she has ‘no idea’ why she is working harder in her late seventies than she has in her entire life, boiling her pre-eminent career down to sheer luck.

She’s appeared in some of the highest grossing films of the 21st century, including the Harry Potter franchise, and worked with some of the biggest names in the industry. However, celebrity bears no weight on Margolyes. She’s uninterested in its ostensible reverence.

Margolyes’s style is warm and sincere, whilst remaining direct and unafraid; voicing her opinions in her notoriously unfiltered fashion. She is, in her own words, a ‘no bullshit’ being.

She’s up at 7am in London for our phone call, a few hours away from catching a flight to Los Angeles where she’ll embark on her second road trip across the heartland of America this year. Her previous voyage, broadcast on ABC TV (Miriam’s Big American Adventure), was an attempt to meet the people reshaping the nation post-Trump’s election. This time around, Margolyes is shooting a documentary on death and assisted dying – a subject she finds fascinating.

Discovering unusual characters in remote places, and learning about life at the edge of death is part of Margolyes’s quest to make people think. And her part playing Miss Shepherd in The Lady in the Van, which opens at Melbourne Theatre Company in February, is certainly an extension of this. The play follows the autobiographical story of writer Alan Bennett and his unlikely friendship with Miss Mary Shepherd, an eccentric, cantankerous, homeless lady who ‘temporarily’ parked her van outside his London home in 1974 – and stayed for 15 years.

The character didn’t immediately strike a chord with Margolyes. ‘What I principally thought was how ghastly she was and how on earth did Alan Bennett put up with her?’ ‘When I went to see him to talk about it, which I had the pleasure of doing about six weeks ago, I said, “How on earth did you find yourself in this situation.” And he said, “Well I didn’t know that it was going to be a situation. I had no idea she was going to stay for 15 years. It just grew like Topsy.”

Stepping into the role of Miss Shepherd is somewhat intimidating, even for Margolyes, as the part was famously embodied by her friend and Harry Potter co-star, Dame Maggie Smith; both on the West End stage and silver screen. ‘One of the problems for any actor playing this role is to try to obliterate Maggie Smith, which is a very difficult thing to do,’ she says drolly.

Margolyes doesn’t believe either Bennett or Shepherd liked each other, but instead that they developed a ‘modus vivendi,’ living harmoniously alongside one another. ‘I think that is a profound moral lesson for the world generally at the moment,’ Margolyes explains, ‘We have to find a way of putting up with people that we don’t like very much.’

There’s actually a lot to admire about Miss Shepherd, she says. She was courageous and steadfast in her conviction. She found a place that she felt safe in, after a lifetime of vagabonding, and she was going to hang onto that security no matter what. ‘That kind of survivor instinct, at any cost, is rather impressive.’

‘She’s an analogy for society,’ Margolyes continues, ‘Society is cruel and you’ve got to be strong to deal with the world. Those people who aren’t strong get shafted. But she died in the place that she wanted to die in. And that took courage.’

When Margolyes told her friends she’d be personifying Miss Shepherd, they teasingly said she could wear her own clothes for the part. Despite her lauded list of credits and performances all over the world, Margolyes isn’t fazed by keeping up appearances. Instead, she invests her time in telling stories she is passionate about, and banging the drum for the social justice causes that are close to her heart. She is a supporter of Sense (the National Deafblind and Rubella Association), a signatory of Jews for Justice for Palestinians, a campaigner for the respite care charity, Crossroads, an ambassador for the endangered tiger quoll, Bowel Cancer Australia and the Stroke Association of Australia.

When Margolyes comes to Melbourne she stays in Brighton, because she loves the stark comparison she makes to the stereotyped, lycra-clad women scurrying up Church Street. According to Margolyes these ladies can be found in white gym gear and visors. More earnestly, she loves the seaside suburb because of its architecture and op-shops; its café culture and the various friends and extended family she’s collected over her decades of visiting. Margolyes’s partner hails from Brighton and has family in the neighbourhood. ‘They threw a party for me when I first arrived… they’re all liberal voting, upper-middle class, wealthy people … and I said to them, as we stood in the garden in Brighton, “I know that a fat, Jewish lesbian is the very last thing you want in your family.” And they all laughed and I was welcomed from that moment on. ‘Australians like it when people tell you the truth. They like the direct way. And my way has always been the direct way.’

In the second half of 2019, Margolyes will take her documentary entourage on the road again, but this time across Australia. ‘The thing I love most about Australia is the ‘fair go’. However, I think the ‘fair go’ is under threat at the moment. And that’s what I want to find out about. I want to make people realise how valuable that ‘fair go’ is.’

Margolyes says she’s spent her life searching for, and finding, connection. Through art, and performance, and her many social justice crusades, she has sought to share this connection with the world. ‘No man is an island,’ is how she puts it. ‘I know people think of me as funny. They think of someone who makes them laugh. And I feel very privileged if that’s so. But I can do other things. I want to make them cry as well. And above all, I want to make them think.’

The Lady in the Van play will make them do all of those things. They’ll laugh, they’ll cry and they’ll think. And that’s what theatre should do.’

The Lady in the Van is playing at Arts Centre Melbourne from 2 February until 6 March.