Thursday, September 20, 2012

Hair at The Q

Hair – The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical  Book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado.  Music by Galt MacDermot.  Presented by Queanbeyan City Council, directed by Stephen Pike at The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, September 19 – October 6, 2012.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
September 19

Excellent musicianship by a neatly arranged band led by Major Geoff Grey set the tone for a quality all-singing-acting-dancing cast on a set (Brian Sudding) and in lighting (Adrian Rytir) that thoroughly loved to rock.

The shocks that reverberated through the audience in the war scenes, ostensibly in Claude’s pot-driven imagination but terrifyingly real to those of us who have seen the footage of all the wars since Hair was first produced in 1967, were a special achievement in sound, lighting and movement.  And the final tragic scene was played with just the right level of intensity – touching our hearts and minds without over-stepping into sentimentality, which is always a risk in American musicals.

Especially wonderful is to know that here, in the Capital region of Australia, 45 years on and despite the “demeaning” politics of our democracy today (according to Tony Windsor, Member for New England, discussing with Anne Summers and Natasha Mitchell Civility, sexism and democracy, on Life Matters, Radio National, 20 September 2012), young people can respond to the feelings and the message of peace with so much enthusiasm and sincerity as this cast achieved.  This production is not an imitation of the 1967 Hair, but a highly successful re-creation.

After reading David Marr’s Quarterly Essay 47 Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott, I naturally searched for a quote from B.A.Santamaria about the production of Hair which I saw in Sydney in 1969.  No luck, except that Wikipedia states “The Sydney, Australia production's opening night was interrupted by a bomb scare in June 1969”.  I wasn’t surprised, then, to see that a bomb was actually exploded at a theatre in Cleveland, Ohio in 1971.

Though I remember that people around me reacted most to the shock of nudity on stage in sophisticated 60’s Sydney, I realised yesterday that for Americans the most shocking scene concerned the “Folding of the Flag”, perhaps the most emotive nationalistic ceremony one can imagine, taking the people back to the horrors and final resolution of the Civil War.  Yet it is interesting to note that though both the issues of nudity and the desecration of the American flag were taken to the Massachusetts and the Federal Supreme Courts, nudity caused the most problems for the continued presentation of Hair, since, on the flag issue, the show "constitutes ... an obscure form of protest protected under the First Amendment."

In Queanbeyan 2012, the nudity, which is essential to complete the first half, was managed with great delicacy as the spotlights went to blackout and no more than some unspecified flesh tints were visible.  I’m guessing that this doesn’t mean that regional Australians are more prudish today.  I think it’s more likely that nudity no longer shocks, and that the lessening of this scene’s impact allowed the major theme of the production to take its proper place.

The same effect could be seen in the treatment of the pot-smoking.  For us the greatest shock was to see smoking represented on stage (I have that reaction when I watch old Hollywood movies), but the effects of marijuana were acted out in a light-hearted way since we are long past believing that pot-smoking means the end of the world as we know it.  We just know it is part of the world, and even the occasional US president admits it, even though we also know of the psychological effects.

Of course, the draft – or in Australia’s case, the lottery – which was used to force people to fight in the unwinnable Vietnam War, has fallen into the wastebasket of history, perhaps to at least some extent due to Hair.  But the decision, represented by Claude’s dilemma, to be willing to kill or be killed in the name of one’s country or ideology, or to seek to live peaceably without causing deliberate harm to others, has been a difficult, if not impossible, choice to make throughout human history.

Entertaining as Hair is, and especially so in this Queanbeyan production, I think Stephen Pike’s direction has made the right balance of high energy youthful life-affirming enjoyment against the truth of human self-destructive tendencies.

I went to the show with some trepidation about a Hair revival, but revived I have been by such strong performances by all concerned.