Afterview of The Steampunk Opium Wars

The debut performance of The Steampunk Opium Wars went brilliantly well on Thursday to a 250-strong audience, something approaching a record for the National Maritime Museum Lates. I feel honoured and very lucky to have such a talented and enthusiastic team in sympathy with what I was trying to achieve with this piece. Not just the truly excellent cast, but all the friends who dived in to help: notably Jan Jefferies (hugely supportive as usual), Hi Ching, Lucy Sheen and Oliver Shykles. Cameraman Jeff Willis brought his state-of-the-art equipment along and streamed the performance over the internet to hundreds of people around the world. The stage and light tech, Jon Crawley, turned out be a great asset as well.

So, once more, thanks to: Charles Shaar Murray, Marc Jefferies and DJ Zoe Baxter for providing music; actors Paul Anderson, John Crow, Neil Hornick, Hugo Trebels, John Paul O’Neill and Louise Whittle; Gary Lammin and the Hackney Tea Ceremony; Sukey Parnell (assisted by Will) for managing to set up her studio in the main building; Deborah Evans-Stickland who was magnificent and scary as Britannia and performed her Flying Lizards mega-hit “Money”; and a double-mention for John Paul for his excellent Farrago History Poetry Slam — and all the poets who came along and took part.

“I never knew this.”

While The Steampunk Opium Wars stands up as an entertainment on its own, the debut night wasn’t just about presenting a spectacle for an audience to consume passively. I’d anticipated that much of the history of The Steampunk Opium Wars play would be unknown to most of the audience, an expectation confirmed by comments after the show, the chief theme being, “I never knew this”.

I hoped that the energy from the fresh perspective (not to mention the gusto with which we performed) would have been high afterwards with facts and revelations ricocheting around everyone’s brain, and Empire and “Free Trade” givens falling like nine-pins, so I wanted a way to build on this and keep the energy going. I have always been a great believer in the healing and revivifying powers of creativity so it was important to get everyone involved.

This was where my friend John Paul O’Neill came in. What better man for the job than the founder of the oldest poetry slam in Britain: the Farrago Poetry Slam? Get the audience to write about what they’d seen, express how it inspired or stimulated new ways of seeing.

The evening was divided into three sections: the play, then the workshops and the Slam itself.

We weren’t sure what the take-up would be for the workshops but we had plenty of other activities on offer. DJ Lucky Cat — Zoe Baxter from Resonance FM — played her haunting records from the 1920s and 30s, mostly songs with a druggie theme, providing the perfect atmosphere.

Gary Lammin of The Bermondsey Joyriders presented the Hackney Tea Ceremony which I wrote with additional material by this very funny and talented actor/musician. It was a fairground mirror held up, showing what it’s like when an aspect of your culture gets exoticised to a comical degree, which orientalism often does to things for’n. He performed the five minute playlet to a succession of small groups crowded into this geezer’s living room, marshalled into place by the legendary Neil Hornick in his Captain Ironside guise.

The Hackney Tea Ceremony grew from a story Neil told me about performing at the Shanghai Expo in 2010 and being taken in by a tea ceremony scam which took advantage of tourists’ thirst for authentic exotic cultural experience with them ending up being sold quite expensive tea after a lovely bit of tea ceremony theatre. I thought, huh, we can do that. Gary did it so well, someone even chucked in a couple of quid for souvenir tea bags (a bargain at a guinea each — per bag, that is.)

In the main museum, Sukey Parnell set up her photography studio and took portraits of the cast and the audience.

In the Traders Gallery, the Lascar gave a guided tour.

In the bar, Paul Anderson bought a round of drinks for five people for twenty-five quid.

About a dozen poets took the workshop and spent an hour discussing and writing their poems. It was a beautiful sight.

The poetry slam was won by Stephanie Dogfoot with a poem about her Dad and the Opium Wars.

The Steampunk Opium Wars pages:
The Steampunk Opium Wars Home Page
The Company: who we are and how to find us.
Gallery: debut performance at the National Maritime Museum.
VIDEO: Lin Zexu Just Says No!
VIDEO: Sir Jardine Matheson and The Case for Free Trade.
VIDEO: Britannia sings “Money”
VIDEO: Gary Lammin presents the Hackney Tea Ceremony
VIDEO: Anna Chen sings Anna May Wong Must Die!
VIDEO: Anna Chen sings The Camellia & the Poppy
What they said …

Bibliography: The Blood Never Dried by John Newsinger (Bookmarks); Opium by Martin Booth (Simon & Schuster Ltd); The Opium War by Julia Lovell (Picador). Interesting online articles by Justin Kiersky at the Border Arts Project, a Chinese health and education project helping young people whose families have been affected by drug abuse and HIV/Aids.

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