China in Britain #3 – Simon Sladen talks Panto!

Simon is compete completing his PhD at Winchester and he’s an expert in pantomime so obviously pantomime has been one of the main vehicles for representing China on the stage throughout the 19th century particularly with Aladdin but Simon’s going to be talking about a production that was put on in 82 I was going to say this late 70s but it’s a teaching into you and and which makes links to 19th century pantomime and contemporary politics thank you very much yes picking up on some of those things that a man mentioned history impacting the contemporary and for many people in Britain a visit to the Christmas pantomime constitutes their first experience of the theatre not only is it the first time a child will often encounter the spectacle of live performance with its sparkling scenery its toe tapping musical numbers glorious costumes and of course plenty of comic capers but it’s also the first and perhaps only time that many will experience a representation of China on the British stage in the form of course of popular pantomime title Aladdin Aladdin was first produced as a pantomime in 1788 at Covent Garden a favorite of producers and audience members alike for its opportunity of exotic spectacle the modern pantomime version of the tale is set in Peking we’re a poor long dresses son falls in love with the princess of China whether it’ll help from a magic lamp Aladdin wins the love of his life and defeats the wicked a burn aza an evil sorcerer who had high hopes of being the most powerful being in the universe now over the past 244 pantomime seasons the title has evolved greatly and in recent years producers and pantomime writers have caught with new interpretations of the title in order to distance themselves from these overtly Orientalist productions of the past this year for example we’ll see the title role Aladdin dispensed with completely when at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin Jedward and the magic lamp is staged with the x-factor brothers taking over the principal boys role with Britain and much more multicultural society when Aladdin was first produced pantomime has been forced to change in order to stay relevant and contemporary now along with Cinderella Aladdin is the most frequently produced of all the many pantomime titles this coming season it accounts for 20% of the UK’s top 3 pantomime producer’s titles and 15% of the entire season kid producing 24 pantomime to this season expect 1.5 million people to see their productions but not only is the title popular at home pantomime versions of Aladdin have also been seen in Canada South Africa Jamaica and Singapore as an Richard Wright’s and if only I had a book to do they do the same thing that dong Jin had then and the enduring popularity of Aladdin can be ascribed to it having become a vehicle for ways of thinking about China and Chinese people and it’s this very notion this paper sets out to address in relation to Peter Nichols his pantomime puppy which was set during the Opium Wars of 1839 to 1842 and written all those many years after Aladdin’s very own pantomime debut in today’s paper I want to revisit Britain in the 1980s a time when as Benjamin poor states the social and political upheavals of the late 20th century generated new theatrical forms with which to interrogate and reassess the Victorian past poor argues that the way that we regard ourselves in the present sorry the way we represent the past on stage tells us much about how we regard ourselves in the present and it’s this very notion that I want to explore today in relation to Peter Nichols as poppy presented by the RSC in 1982 in September 1982 the Royal Shakespeare Company moved into their new home at the Barbican in the city of London the theatre which have been designed in consultation with the company would become their London base until 2002 and see them present a variety of different productions alongside their usual programming of Shakespeare having already written two pieces for the RSC Peter Nichols is third constituted the first new piece of work for the company’s new home and as with his musical inspired a day in the death of Joe egg a musical revue style piece privates on purvey parade Nichols tanta yet another popular entertainment film for his third RSC commissioned to create the political pantomime poppy set in the mid-1800s poppies narrative echoes that of pantomime Dick Whittington with dick setting off to seek his fortune in

London there he meets Obadiah upward a rising merchant who explains that they could make their fortune in China through the sale of opium off they sailed to British India to harvest the poppy fields with a hope of striking a deal with China but when they discover the Emperor of China has forbidden the trade dick is forced to search for new markets and ways to import his precious cargo full of anger at the British his actions the Chinese besieged the European compound and the opium war breaks out which results in a win for Britain and the acquisition of Hong Kong Island to its territories in the pantomime Hong Kong citizens are all addicted to opium at this point much like the pieces principal girl and the Emperor of China’s son but at least it Whittington ends up wealthy having achieved his goal of becoming a self-made man now in the 1982 published Playtex poppy is described as using all the resources of the traditional British pantomime to tell the essentially serious ultimately devastating story of the mid 19th century opium wars however although poppy has been described as a pantomime and utilizes many of the genres conventions it neither constitutes the expected family-orientated retelling of a familial narrative or with its tales of war exploitation and murdering of the pantomime horse and nor was its production scheduled for a festive run originally so why was pantomime chosen to present a peach with such a quasi historical narrative well in a program note for the 1983 Western revival Nichols writes of course panto was in its prime imperialist spectacle made for the Victorian mood and for us it needs new themes stories and moods new ironies earlier Christmas and why only for kids why no politics as Jim Davis has argued pantomime at Drury Lane at the turn of the century appeared to celebrate Britain’s imperial strength and to support or encourage patriotism within its audience Davis states the star which writing about the Dru Lane pantomimes in 1900 refers to them as a national introduced in institution a symbol of our Empire before criticizing them with this following sentence only a great nation could have done such a thing only an undisciplined one would have done it Nicholas’s use of pantomime therefore is knowingly ironic as the employees of four months described as patriotic and national institution a symbol of Empire to critique these very things the victorian pantomimes once celebrated now in poppy Nicholas challenges the expectation of a happy ending by way of shattering pantomimes usually utopian setting and subverting a number of the genres conventions Nichols’s characters as you can see here strongly adhere to pantomime stock rows but rather than merely being lifted from Dick Whittington many receive new identities often ghosting and representing those figures from history in order to criticize both Victorian and 1982 society in many pantomime titles of course it is the Immortals with their rhyming couplets who established the narrative frame and set up the story by way of a battle between good and evil Nikko’s in poppy chooses Queen Victoria and the Emperor of China as his two immortals battling out over who should be crowned the most favored nation this framework allows Nicholls to present Britain and China as opposing forces as the pantomimes fairy queen victoria’s first appearance by way of a trap holding her auburn sceptre makes such an entrance interesting because nichols is inviting the audience not only to assess their understanding of the genres conventions where a trap is usually reserved for the villain to connote an ascent from hell but question victoria’s suppose it good fairy actions which include declarations of war and the subsequent exploitation of a nation much like Aladdin’s pantomime villain a vanassa who disguises himself in order to gain the magic lamp victoria to adopt such a course appearing first as a statue unable to assist the peasants plight in done roaming on the down next she appears as a missionary missionary and then later as the rather ironically entitled miss fortune presented in this way Nick was paints Victoria as an omnipresent and omnipotent figure deeply embedded in am responsible for Britain’s exploitative and brutal actions whilst using this disguised motive to further connote villainy and mistrust as weak torah radian commented in the observer nichols doesn’t however make the mistake of turning the chinese into the goodies but he does present him as non villains more civilized and respectful than the

cutthroat british who want to make money out of the illegal trade of opium and thereby inflict free trade on china in contrast victoria’s apparent nemesis the emperor of china usually found as a comical bumbling despot in the pantomime aladdin is here depicted roved and splendid in a throne floating high above can noting perhaps superiority and power in employing such a subversive approach the pantomimes prologue sets the theatrical frame for the evening challenging the audience’s horizon of expectations and inviting them to reassess their understanding of pantomime and Britain’s history as John Ellison surmises in his Maryland Sunday review Nichols wanted to use the device of at a tea Pat rhotic panto ironically even bitterly to remind us that our entertainment has deep roots in our imperialism Nicholas’s approach of pitching China against Britain and vice-versa enables him through pantomime to explore some of the constructs of Orientalism as edward Syene wrote identity is a construction involved in establishing opposites and others the processes of which ha poppy hopes to depict and indeed this contrast between the two nations is immediately felt when one considers the production sonography depicted in this image here taken from the 1983 West End revival whereas the British here we’re hunting regalia on white which enforces the boldness of the Union flowers red white and blue China is depicted as a golden land of mystery and fantasy flowing robes are contrasted with trousers or the lack thereof in the case of the principal boy an open gilded parasol contrasts with a closed Union flag umbrella unfolded fans in the background provide an interesting comparison to what appears to be a weapon or a pointing cane in the hand of the merchants of a tire upward in the centre the British appear threatening a pack of Imperial hunters ready to brand any item including dick Whittington’s Underpants there with their union flag and in doing so claim them as their own of course sonography is just one aspect of cultural representation in poppy and now I’d like to have a look at some other ways that Nichols presents these two cultures in order to as Richard K suggests stimulate new political insight for his audience now in poppy the British characters constantly refer to the Chinese using derogatory terms such as and I quote chinks and coolies the British are presented as having no respect for other cultures and in the words of Queen Victoria the character that is they believe it’s their duty to quote raze China’s morals to they are level with cheap sides cheap side of course being one of London’s major trade hubs unless a place of question of morals itself sir Nichols there is is digging at that and these moral this moral questioning is reflected later in puppy when dressed in more Union flags in purest regalia Frances King describes an episode that occurs and I quote the English is shown descending on China with a Bible in one hand and a cash book or a rifle in the other symbols of their imperial quest now they’re rousing chorus entitled the Blessed Trinity in which they proclaim only civilization Commerce and Christianity will save the Chinese who in their eyes need of being baptized commercialized and civilized serves to expose the real motives betweens Britain’s actions and paint the British as the real savages in presenting such depictions of the British and Chinese cultures and society audience members are invited to construct their own readings of the two cultures based on their observations however as WB were than states much like in the work of Brecht nações clearly indicates to them the audience what conclusion their thought should read now in order to Nick was to get his message across he provides the Chinese with their voice of their own to retaliate against the British racist and exploitive comments the British have described as a rugged tribe of savages who in the words of the Emperor import foreign the derogatory term for Westerners and I apologize for my pronunciation here Fang Gris is also used by the Chinese characters which translates as barbarian Devils and it’s this view of the British that Nicholas hoped audience members would embrace and in doing so feel as John Elton wrote in his review ashamed of Britain’s colonial past and actions but as well as the production of sonography and text another way Nick was impart his message it’s through his clever use of song with Poppy’s musical numbers reveling in and utilizing pantomimes topsy-turvy ‘dom now one of the most significant examples of this

can be found in a musical number they all look the same to us which I’d like to play to you now now before I do I’d just like to mention you don’t have all of the lyrics and on this slide here because it would just mess the slide up and I wanted to give you sort of the most important part this is a song by the the Chinese characters and and hopefully a technology will allow us to have a listen needless libel sanitization whatever for using swords are you sure this isn’t a seder whoa swallowing and inspiration picture this since the day they came to us it’s gone up to one of us is a particle and reader acetate on so the musical number sort of honky-tonk melody there it’s just supposed with the characters overtly British somewhat Oxford Oxbridge Jackson as through the song the Chinese characters reveal their perception of the British and I particularly like that line say no more witches which is wonderful things taken as normal for British citizens such as wearing trousers or using a knife and fork to eat a scene as alien by the other culture and through Nicholas’s lyrics he exposes how stereotypes are often based on uncontested relized and misunderstood observations the Scarlet face referring to sunburnt skin for example the song co-written with Monty Norman reveals how the negative reading of situations can be interpreted as a way of coping with other nests as the culture in question reads it’s constructed other so as to feel superior of course the lyric and title they will look the same to us demonstrates the inability of some cultures to recognize others as individuals identifying them by common traits and stereotyping by way of general assumptions and sweeping statements through the musical number Nichols invites his audience to question their own perception of British cultures by way of the comical rendering of the British produced only a year after the Brixton race riots which exposed police racism and contributed to the marginalization of black communities bobbies texts possess to certain residents and suggested that little progress had been made to redress such outdated views of other cultures and thereby revealed some of Britain’s insecurities at that time but this anxiety was heightened by perceived threats from not only at home but also abroad where other wars raged as Britain tried to maintain its status as a world leader and global power now as I mentioned earlier poppy was not scheduled for a Christmas run however perhaps we might say fortuitously for the RSC it’s September opening in 1982 marked exactly three months and 11 days since the end of the Falklands War the largest air naval combat since world war ii when thought to liberate its overseas territory after having been invaded by Argentina presented at this time with a Falklands conflict fresh in Britain’s national consciousness the similarities between Queen Victoria and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s goals of making Britain great again and perhaps reap asserting its colonial power would have been difficult to ignore especially considering the pieces dramatic ending when Victoria transforms for a fourth time into Elizabeth the second as the stage becomes a modern version of the same thus probably suggests a continuation of societal ideals issues and problems and critically addresses the fact that contemporary society has not yet been able to break free from such historical linearity now as Nichols

revealed in a foreword to the revised version of poppy I quote my terminus wasn’t Canton but Hong Kong a Barren Island we got in 1842 by sending in the gunboats on her own Far Eastern tour of 1982 our prime minister told astonished Chinese signatories that our two countries had friendly relations going back to the 19th century one might assume from this that she had not been briefed on history but I think it more likely she knew about it very well and approved of Lord Palmerston s Gumbo’s as the proper operation of market forces as Victoria does in the finale his quotation explicitly links Thatcher to Victoria and offers a comparison between the two leaders by way of Britain’s relationship with the Chinese province Hong Kong became a British colony under Victoria’s reign whilst during Thatcher’s Premiership discussions took place which would see Hong Kong sign back to China as part of the sino-british joint declaration of 1984 around which hadn’t many other pantomime historians state pantomime is a genre offers immediate and specific comment on issues of the moment from major political crises to everyday trivia and in terms of poppy the future of Hong Kong was one such important issue in act 2 scene twelves dialogue the following scene plays out after Britain have been declared most favored nation we give you Hong Kong Island to which the Dame lady dodo replies and we won’t let them have it back in a hurry will we boys and girls this knowing line from the pantomime Dame lady dodo talking in the present but situated in the past suggested duality of both time and character she represents both the past and the present with her aside crossing the time and space boundaries she breaks the fourth wall uniting the quasi historical fictitious stage with that of the audience’s contemporary Britain the choice of dodo an extinct bird as the Dame’s name connotes an individual out of touch with the era and as this dialogue suggests the role may have been interpreted as a representation of fatty herself with her title lady and not her Iron Lady status of course depicting Thatcher as a man in women’s clothing was often embraced by satirist during her Premiership spitting images grotesque male suit puppets Thatcher which you can see in the in the bottom just there was constantly referred to a sir and possessing a very aggressive persona not too dissimilar to that of the Dame lady dodo in poppy who you can see above her upon her first entrance dodo appears in this hunting and shooting regalia before speaking the lines anything that moves I put a bullet in it in our opening patter she declares herself as a hideously extinct old bird and arse allowed where did I go wrong these three lines could be seen respectively to represent the Falklands War with anything that moves I put a bullet in it perhaps referring to the sinking of the Belgrano her policies hideously extinct and her failure when confronted with national striking and increased inflation where did I go wrong let us remember in 1982 the year of Poppy’s premier Britain and China began talks regarding the future of Hong Kong these initial discussions were described as hostile by the press and continued throughout 1984 until an agreement was reached that year with trade just as in the opium wars a central factor in those negotiations a deal was signed which meant Hong Kong would be governed and the one country two systems’ agreement affording the region of Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy to preserve its economic and social systems for 50 years from the date of the hand rail handover Dodos line therefore not only referred to the 1842 acquisition of Hong Kong but also reference the significance of Thatcher’s contemporary discussions now during Poppy’s run at the Barbican Thatcher expressed her desire to negotiate an extension of the lease which would expire in 1997 and she stated the friendship between Britain and China is good for us and good for the world was further expressing that she was proud to help write a new page in the history of that friendship two years later in a speech to the unofficial members of the Hong Kong executive and legislative councils she remarked Britt has been responsible for Hong Kong for nearly a hundred and fifty years it is an association which is a source of justified to us all emotional vocabulary such as pride and friendship was used persistently by Thatcher to describe the historical relationship between China and Hong Kong Britain and China and Hong Kong it was this positive spin on what Michael Billington described as Britain’s arrogant greedy and violent colonial history that

Nicholls sought to criticise and by way of presenting such a history he hoped to enlighten his audience about her often forgotten historic episode of Britain’s past as Billington reminded his readers we the British attempted to justify the opium trade by the benefits it brought to India and as poppy shows we were as insensitive then as we apparently still are to ancient Chinese values now pantomime genre conventions dictate of course the de certain level of audience participation will be present in the evenings proceedings to help establish this shared community of Pan Toland but in Poppy’s go into song she not only was the audience invited to sing along they were also encouraged to partake in their own colonial war led by lady dodo and her now lover a bird eye upward and other characters with allusion to Thatcher in that he just like such as father one stone a grocer’s shop the song sheet divided the audience in to nick whose aim was to have one side sing kapow splat whilst throwing metaphorical grenades at the other who had then shoot their opponents in return with metaphor or gap Phu Gatling guns to the tune of rat-a-tat-tat to act out the storming of the Summer Palace in the opium wars so I haven’t put all the lyrics down to this song which everyone was encouraged to join in I won’t encourage you to do that today unless you have a real aim and wish to do that and to warm up but just have a listen to some of the lyrics which sort of recount the history and sort of fast-forward it up to a date remember that just after this comes that transformation of Britain into the present with Victoria moving into Elizabeth the second and the whole stage and transforming so just play you the opening section of this a mighty rule of the seven seas has left the dragon from British Tommy and a sort of catalog of every antique faithful to their waiting mates window the agile peacock to will dine on taco man Tommy catch this music box of diamond studded man it’s made of and just a don’t have to pay they go away so the Chinese take away their referring not sir obviously the the the at that time very popular and still very very popular today Chinese food takeaways but to all of those items that were ransacked from the summer palace audience members Nichols hoped would be drawn into the song sheet embracing it as part of pantomimes fun without stopping to consider the implications of their actions and thereby expose some of those mechanisms of nationalism by singing along and acting out around sacking of the Summer Palace this shared community of pantomime ie those on stage and those in the audience demonstrated their alliance to the British cause as Richard cave writes the willingness of the mainly adult audience to participate in poppy can be read as exposing the pro-british view as an unearths re an ideological construct dangerous precisely because it is naive unthinking uncivilized a glorification of the will to power alongside dough to an upward the audience become co-conspirators complicit in the looting of the Summer Palace and by rejoicing hip hooray they support they show their support for Britain’s actions and herein lies much of the RSC’s productions criticism as Michael Billington wrote far from wringing our withers at a shameful episode from our mercantile past poppy leaves the audience in a state of festive gaiety it provides a good night owl’ rather than stab at the conscience the evening seems more tribute to the RSC’s showbiz proficiency than a limb busting attack on the dubious inheritance of the square-mile in which the belle Birkin resides poppy which started out as an acerbic pantomime has ended up comforting musical only slightly to the left of the King and I however wrong critic does counter all the other reviews in terms of audience participation writing in the New Statesman Benedict nightingale warned his readers don’t be misled by the

generally kindly reviews it was a pretty flat opening at the Barbican even allowing for the presence of critics and those professional first nighters who would rather die than join in the shouts and choruses demanded by the actors perhaps they were seated near knighting outdid de technicals message and having experience what cave describes as a dilemma basis based on political and moral choice they decided not to join in in order to convey that they were as Elson wrote thoroughly ashamed of our colonial past and of the opium war 1839 – 1842 in particular perhaps it was that the play attending core audience of the RSC was simply unsure of how to interact perhaps they were as nightingale suggests confused or even resentful at the implication that they would join in and that complicity had been assumed so reports differ greatly to the extent of participation but most critics agree that other message was there the genre of pantomime meant ago hidden in amongst those issues of comedy patter songs the sparkle of the scenery but the fact that Nicholas’s message did go unnoticed is interesting as it exposes the mechanics behind patriotism and supports Davis’s observations about pantomime at Drury Lane and pantomime as a medium for imperialist propaganda nichols was so outraged to the RSC’s presentation he stated he would never write for british theatre again however six years later he revisited the piece at the request of the half moon theatre hoping to create what he termed a custard pie full of razor blades the production was as its press release stated rougher tougher shorter sharper away from the glamour in the large-scale budget of the RSC the small Theatre in London’s Mile End targeted local unions and residents of Tower Hamlets along with American tourists and even considered staging a mock terrorist attack at a National Theatre as part of its political publicity campaign and aunty Thatcher position now if we consider the two productions graphics here we can easily see how the half Moone production both stronger criticism of Britain’s past superimposing Victoria’s head on to a 19th century cartoon depicting the exploitation of China by Britain and once again there’s allusions to Thatcher are there within both being portrayed as having men’s clothing and you can see that there with Victoria’s head upon soldier’s body as Mark Steyn noted at the time a lot can happen in six years and since the irises original mrs Thatcher has considerately provided poppy with an obvious subtitle a celebration of Victorian values of course this celebration was highly ironic and further criticized such as favouring of Samuel smile stars values such as self help whilst also expressing unease at Thatcher’s third term in government which made her the longest continuously serving prime minister since Lord Liverpool in the early 19th century however although the piece was heavily revised post the signing of the sino-british joint declaration of 1984 to make Gretna pay even more villainous in the wake of Thatcher’s third term in government this critics still proclaimed that in the words of Mark gold there’s a thought-provoking satire on imperialism and greed which is how is built it falls down because even the serious bits of funnier so to conclude with its focus on the opium war between Britain and China productions of poppy sorta exposed the darker side of patriotism and by way of pantomime ask their audiences to consider their identity as inheritors of Britain’s colonial past as Billington wrote of poppy in 1982 pantomime with its moral certainties built in chauvinism and defiant swagger is both an apt metaphor for those Victorian values mrs. T would have us resurrect and also a suitable vehicle for the story of the British East India Company’s druggie exploitation of the Chinese trade routes in a decade in which Zimbabwe vanna to and believes received their independence on which Canada achieved patreon poppy depicted the harsh reality of imperialism as its quasi fictitious narrative linked and make comparison between these two ages of Victoria and Thatcher by way of the two woman’s relationship with Hong Kong not only was Britain coping with the loss of its colonies during the 1980s it was also suffering from its own identity crisis as debates about the failure of multiculturalism suggested that rather than move on from the past the past the present had merely inherited and used it pop we sought to expose some of the mechanics behind the racist construction of others and Orientalism and in subverting many of pantomime genre conventions the production successfully criticized Britain at Britain’s actions both past and present

in today’s pantomime season of myriad Aladdin’s political pantomime a well be behind us the Nicholas’s poppy demonstrates the genre can still be used for political means even if poppies audiences much like their Victorian counterparts when all too aware of the productions hidden message thank you