“That Sort of Fairy Tale’s No Use in the New Victorian Age That’s Coming”: The Past as a Metaphor for the Present in Peter Nichols’s Poppy

Simon Sladen


In 1982 the Royal Shakespeare Company premiered Peter Nichols’s Poppy at London’s Barbican Theatre. Using the past as a metaphor for the present, Poppy’s historical depiction of the nineteenth century Opium Wars in China resonated strongly with the then Conservative government’s economic policies and negotiations over Hong Kong’s future. Poppy draws comparisons between the ‘reigns’ of Queen Victoria and Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and confronts audiences with Britain’s colonial past. By way of theatrical juxtapositioning, the production criticises the present by evoking the past, wherein Nichols also uses contemporary references to 1980s politics and society to strengthen the metaphor. This article examines Nichols’s use of British pantomime conventions to expose Britain’s colonial history and considers the impact of history and Thatcher’s three terms in government on the Half Moon Theatre’s 1988 revival.  The author argues that Poppy can be read as an outcry against, not only a celebration of Britain’s colonial past, but also Thatcherism. Simon Sladen is Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary Performance at the Victoria and Albert Museum and is recognised as one of the UK’s leading experts on British Pantomime.

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