POLLY (THE HEARTBREAK OPERA) Comes to The Greenwich Theatre
If the turning of the year is a time to think about what's important in the world - and how to challenge everything that's wrong with it - then audiences could do a lot worse than be inspired by the riotous Polly (The Heartbreak Opera) coming to Greenwich Theatre on February 14 and 15. Produced by Marie Hamilton and Sharp Teeth Theatre, the show reimagines the sequel to John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (which sees Polly Peachum heading off in search of Macheath in the West Indies where he is living as a pirate) for a 21st century audience.
"The show is packed full of laughs and is very silly, because my God do we all need a good laugh nowadays" says Hamilton, "and because we want everyone to leave feeling inspired, empowered and having had a really great night out. No one wants to go to the theatre and be smacked round the head by Germaine Greer with a Mary Wollstonecraft anthology, but at the same time the satire in Polly does run deep because societally these problems run deep."
Hamilton took the idea of adapting Polly to her director Steph Kempson in 2017. "It was in the wake of the Brexit referendum and the Trump election, and I knew instantly, like a bolt from the blue, that this gender-bending, anti-colonialist, proto-feminist play needed to be re-written, by women, right now," she said. "With our composer Ben Osborn based in Berlin we decided to R&D the show there, drawing inspiration from the city that inspired Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's Threepenny Opera. We partnered with the Wardrobe Theatre in Bristol and Theaterhaus, Berlin, and made it in spring 2018."
Hamilton cites John Gay as a big influence on her early professional life. "Seeing The Beggar's Opera at The Warwick Arts Centre as a teenager was one of the reasons I got into theatre in first place, and John Gay has long been a comedy hero of mine. It's interesting, isn't it, that this guy had the patronage of two Earls, a Duke and a Duchess actually came from a grammar school in Barnstaple and wrote Polly, a play that savagely attacks the hypocrisies of 'civilised society' and the colonialist war mongering of the time.
"He really played with fire because yes, he was often found hanging out at Burlington House with the Earl but wrote plays which were deeply critical of everything that the aristocracy represented."
That challenging spirit lies at the heart of this new version too, drawing links between the societal inequalities of the 18th and 21st centuries. "Most of what women were going through, and putting each other through, in the 18th Century is alive and well in the 21st." she explained. "We still slut shame, we still put virginity and purity on a pedestal, we still tell women who work they're not worth anything because they're not mothers, and tell mothers that they're not worth anything because now they're irrelevant, old mothers.
"We still put the vast majority of societal worth for young women on how they look rather that how they think, and read article after article on how embarrassing it is that someone's got fat now, or got too thin now.
"We still hate the other woman when a man cheats and forgive men who treat us terribly, we still idolise the 'lovable rogue', the 'bad boy' and forgive them over and over. And we still live in a country where according to The Office of National Statistics an 'average of seven women a month are killed by a current or former partner'."
Hamilton sees a similar inequality in theatre production. "I think women are socialised not to rock the boat too much, to be nice, polite, feminine - good girls basically. But when you stop caring about that so much you find the real freedom, and the real joy! Our show is very funny, so you get big laughs with your feminism, but viciously so - we don't pull any punches."
Polly (The Heartbreak Opera) is at Greenwich Theatre on 14 & 15 February 2020