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Marie Hamilton - Polly (The Heartbreak Opera) Interview

A collaboration between Marie Hamilton and Sharp Teeth Theatre, Polly (The Heartbreak Opera) brings a gritty and wild energy to John Gay’s scandalous follow up to The Beggar’s Opera, with original music inspired by Peaches, Britney and Nina Simone. This fierce adaptation renews
Polly, Gay’s near forgotten gender-bending, anti-colonialist and proto-feminist ballad opera, originally written in 1729 but banned for the outrage it sparked.

Now in the 21st Century, Polly’s arguments about gender, colonialism and women’s rights rage on. Polly (The Heartbreak Opera) hilariously rips the text apart, re-writing Gay’s original satire to reflect the all too similar societal inequalities of the present day. Devised by the company
and directed by Stephanie Kempson (Fringe First award winner, Breathless; director, The Good The Bad and The Coyote Ugly), this show brings new life to the 18th Century rom-com, with techno, tracksuits and palm trees.

Photo by Chelsey Cliff

In a tacky beach resort on a storm hit island we meet jilted brides, drag king politicians, a pregnant murderess, and a pirate boyband called Blazin' Squid. Telling not just the story of Purest Polly Peachum but of the other wives of Mack the Knife as well, it is a joyous battle cry and unashamed expression of female rage, of love, loss, and revenge.

This viciously satirical, unashamedly sexy and very funny musical features 18 original songs. The score is brought together by Cameron Macintosh award-winner Ben Osborn, Madeline Shann and Ellie Showering (Breach Theatre).

We caught up with Marie Hamilton who has co-written and stars in the piece.

Where did your arts career begin?
Like so many others in my drama classroom at secondary school- a classroom with no tables!? I couldn’t believe it, I was over the moon. We went to shows in London, at the RSC and by local theatre companies and my eyes were opened to seeing the world onstage, familiar but somehow made new. On stage you could see the world for all its complexity and cruelty and beauty and hilarity. It’s so important we keep offering arts courses and trips for kids at state schools, I wouldn’t be doing this if it weren’t for A Level drama. Even if the work I was making was absolutely atrocious, you’ve got to start somewhere and hopefully it’s developed a bit.

How did you approach a career in the arts?
After my A levels, realising I wanted more of this no tables in a classroom action, I swerved uni and went to Paris to train at the Ecole Philippe Gaulier. Philippe is known mostly as a clown teacher but he is a genius of theatre too, and there I fell in love with Greek Tragedy and Vaudeville and Bouffon, which inspired a lot of the way we made Polly. Bouffon is often described as dark clown but reallyit’s the original satire. Clowns are innocent idiots, but Bouffons know the intricacies of the human heart and mind. They are there to shine a light on all of the dark secrets society wants to keep under wraps. It’s political and dangerous and funny and dark and that’s the place all my work has stemmed from ever since. Philippe also gave me an important mantra when making work. If we were boring or self-absorbed onstage, he would bang his drum and say: (in a croaky old French Man voice) “Money Back, Money Back”, and I think this is an excellent phrase to ring in all theatre maker’s ears. Is this something that’s going to move people and entertain or change them in some way? Is this something people should part with their hard earned cash for? Or is it just for myself?

Why did you choose to stage this show?
I had studied the Beggar’s Opera and fallen in love with the dark, sexiness of it. It’s the original musical and there was something about the bawdiness of the 18th Century that I loved, probably from watching Pirates of the Caribbean at an impressionable age. When I discovered John Gay had written a sequel that was banned for being too anti-colonialist and feminist and critical of the government at the time I fell in love with it. I then gave it to Stephanie Kempson who I knew from the Bristol theatre scene and who had directed lots of brilliant shows with music. She was all about the 18th century pirate vibe too and so we went to Berlin with amazing writer and performer Madeline Shann and brilliant divisor Katy Sobeyto work with our other old pal from Bristol theatre the composer Ben Osborn who is based there. We made 18 new songs and laughed and cried and ripped the text apart, listening to a lot of Berlin techno, watching shows at the Berliner Ensemble and the Volkesbuhne. It was foundational for the show to be made in the 21st century incarnation of the city that inspired Brecht and Weill when they made the Threepenny Opera out of it’s prequel. 

Photo by Chelsey Cliff

Does the fact that the piece was banned make it more of an intriguing prospect?
Definitely. It ripped into the power structures of the day and had direct take downs of politicians, we’ve brought it into the 21st century and depressingly a lot of the problems are still the same. There are still lying politicians and greedy businessmen and oppressive power structures and all of us are still at the bottom of the pile misdirecting our anger and fighting each other. I just hope we don’t get banned

How have you approached bringing this production to the stage?
It’s taken a long time. We started making it in 2017 and because of the size and ambition of it, and doing the rounds of ACE funding applications, we didn’t get to finish it until 2019. We finally had a big tour booked throughout March, April, May and June of 2020… but we all know what happened then! Then I derailed things once more by havinga baby and so it’s taken us till now to get the show back on. I will also, for added spice, be 7 months pregnant on this tour (oops I did it again) that wasn’t going to stop us this time! Luckily one of my characters Lucy Lockett is pregnant anyway and I also play her babydaddy: the Rock n Roll Bad Boy of the 18th Century Captain Macheath. We’re gonna put a snail trail up the belly and I think it’ll be pretty punk (and appropriate for a show made in Berlin) to have him pregnant with his own child. We’re just so happy it’s finally happening. Now just need as many people as possible to get to see it.

How would you describe your artistic style to anyone who hasn’t encountered your work?
Dark, political and (mostly) funny

How did you set about combining the story with original songs inspired by famous artists including Britney and Nina Simone?
We took the 18th century text apart and worked out which bits would still serve the story today and what needed to be rejigged and moved about or cut. Then we worked out which bits would be good as songs. We did a lot of spider diagrams and lists nailing down the exact musical flavour of each one from “I think this should be a bit Tom Waitsy” to “This is definitely Blazin’ Squad, but mixed with the Red Hot Chilli Peppers”. There’s also Lady Sovereign, Enrique Iglesias and yes, Britney and Nina Simone.

If you could have dinner with 3 famous people, who would you invite and why?
To get in the mood for this: Bertolt Brecht, Peaches and the 18th century actress Dorothea Jordan. She had 10 children and would take them on tour with her, breastfeeding backstage between scenes. I just have one and a bump, so it should be no probs in comparison. I think we could have a pretty hilarious night, and make some very wild theatre.

If you were a biscuit, what biscuit would you be a why?
Probably a Bourbon. If there’s a Bourbon at the tea and coffee station I’m going straight for it.

How would you describe the show in 3 words?
Dark, empowering, (and very, very) funny.

What do you hope an audience member takes away from seeing the show?
I hope they come out feeling empowered, inspired and ready to change the world

Where can people see the show and follow your career beyond?
You can see Polly in Bristol at the Wardrobe Theatre 12th-20th April, in Salford at The Lowry 3-4th May in London at the Pleasance Theatre 8-11th May, and in Exeter at The Barnfield 15th-16th May. Then I will do my other show Madonna On The Rocks a dark musical about motherhood, madness and making art at the end of the world at The Brighton Fringe 21st-25th May. Then I’ll take a little break, and have this baby.

You can find tickets and more information at

Photo by Paul Blakemore

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