Interview with Marie Hamilton of Polly (The Heartbreak Opera)

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A person is dressed in a leopard-print shirt and large round glasses, holding a blue microphone and wearing clown makeup with white face paint and red cheeks. Another person in the background is wearing a yellow shirt and blonde wig, holding a red microphone.
Marie Hamilton

Marie Hamilton's Polly (The Heartbreak Opera) is a fiery adaptation of John Gay's 18th-century 'The Beggar's Opera'. Inspired in equal parts by rom-com narrative, Berlin techno, tracksuits, Britney, palm trees and pirate boybands, we sat down with Marie to learn more about the creation of the musical.​​​​​​​..

Hi Marie, tell us about the core themes of Polly (The Heartbreak Opera)?

Polly (The Heartbreak Opera) is about greed, colonialism and capitalism and how three women, the three wives of Mack The Knife, get tangled up in loving him. And really, how we all get tangled up in the same toxic societal knots.

The original opera was written in 1729 by John Gay, what’s it been liking bringing the story to life in the 21st Century?

It’s depressing how much of it is still so relevant today! We still have corrupt, lying politicians and businessmen who don’t care about the human suffering their profits are driven by. We still have women fighting over men who are terrible and oppressive power structures and we’re all still at the bottom of the pile misdirecting our anger, and fighting each other. But there’s a lot more techno and tracksuits than John Gay might have expected!

We had an amazing visit from John Gay’s descendants though and got their blessing- Caroline Gay said that he would have definitely approved- phew!

Three individuals in white outfits and veiled headpieces hold red bouquets, standing on a dimly lit stage. The backdrop is adorned with metallic, shimmering curtains. The mood is theatrical and mysterious.
Polly (The Heartbreak Opera)

We’ve seen that the show was created in Berlin?

Yes, our amazing composer Ben Osborn is based there and so we went to Berlin to make the show, ripping the text apart, laughing and crying about what it means to be a woman in the 21st century. We listened to lots of Berlin Techno and watched shows at the Berliner Ensemble and the Volkesbuhne. It was so wonderful to make this 21st-century incarnation of the show in the city that inspired Brecht and Weill to make the Threepenny Opera out of its prequel.

You wear many hats with this production, in which do you feel most creative?

Ah wow. They’re so different. There’s a huge private, personal buzz to the writing bit, when you come up with something that makes you laugh or solves some sort of narrative conundrum that has been hanging over you, that feels excellent. But being on stage, particularly in this show that we care so deeply about, and have been trying to get on tour for so long, with the rest of the brilliant, hilarious cast has been a dream come true.

I’ll tell you where I don’t feel creative though... when I have my producer hat on. A hat which absolutely doesn’t fit me. Drawing up budgets and sending emails about public liability insurance is enough to make me want to give up the theatre altogether! But we have to do these things or the theatre won’t happen.

Could you explore the musical inspirations found (or heard) in Polly? What do these artists add to the overall experience?

In the original 18th century play John Gay used popular tunes of the day and wrote his own lyrics to them. Nowadays Intellectual Property Law makes that more tricky. And expensive. So we wrote original music, but inspired by artists we love: Nina Simone, Britney Spears, techno and the blues, and noughties pop.

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 and a sea shanty”. There’s also Lady Sovereign, Enrique Iglesias, Lily Allen and Meatloaf. I think it’s this amazing amalgam of all these different musical styles and energies that makes the show so exciting and new and exhilarating.

Three people dressed in vibrant 90s-inspired clothing enthusiastically perform on stage under shiny, metallic streamers. The central figure wears a hat and appears to sing passionately into a microphone while making a peace sign. The other two also hold microphones, singing or cheering.
Polly's cast on stage

What’s caught your eye in the UK culture scene recently? (Can be anything!)

We love Lucy McCormick @luck_muck; she’s a big inspiration for sure. She’s on tour with her shows Lucy and Friends and Triple Threat as we speak and anyone who likes wild, unbridled punk feminism should definitely get themselves tickets. Our friends at Wise Children have also just made a feminist cabaret musical- Blue Beard, we haven’t seen it yet but we really want to!

Learn more about Polly (The Heartbreak Opera) here and Marie Hamilton here.