The London theater season seems to be off to an uneasy start this year with Poppy, a major musical at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new home in the Barbican Theater. Its book and lyrics are by Peter Nichols, author of The National Health and A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, and its music is by Monty Norman, best known for his theme for the James Bond movies. Poppy adapts for the musical stage a rough outline of the history of the English Opium Wars with China in the reign of Queen Victoria.

The story it tells is one of hypocrisy and exploitation: of how, in order to provide a market for the opium produced by sharecroppers in their Indian domains, the Victorians encouraged opium addiction in China; of how, when the Chinese Emperor attempted to obstruct the importation of opium, English guns were brought to bear against Chinese crossbows; and of how, in the...


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