Gate Theatre, London W11
Opened 22 September, 2005

Just under a year ago, director Daniel Kramer was lauded for taking a famously difficult play, putting it on the tiny stage of the Gate and (not to mince words) giving it a good seeing-to.  The treatment he meted out then, and electrifyingly, to Buchner’s Woyzeck, he has now repeated on the notorious hippy musical, Galt MacDermot’s Hair.  It’s a remarkable staging in a small space, but it tears the play to shreds.

Hair – music by Galt MacDermot, lyrics and book by Gerome Ragni and James Rado – was about the hope of hippiedom, that flower-power might actually have power.  Even when protagonist Claude dies after being drafted to Vietnam, the hope remains that the Age of Aquarius might still be waiting just over the horizon.  That was 1968. It’s a different world. Without the hippie ideals, the youth tribe here are just layabout brats.

The show’s reference points have been diligently updated for 2005: Vietnam to Iraq, LBJ to Dubya, LSD to Ecstasy, a be-in to a candlelit vigil for peace... plus new additions including a sexually responsible HIV/condom routine etc.  But not all the points. Claude’s heroes are still Timothy Leary and Fellini, and musical director Stephen Brooker can only partially reinvent the score.  These inconsistencies prove fatal.

Originally, the shock was that Claude decided not to dodge the Vietnam draft; in 2005, it’s even more shocking that he might voluntarily sign up for Iraq, but it’s also dramatically implausible.  And there’s no single youth tribe today to correspond to hippiedom. Hence the range of crops, shaves and quiffs on these kids singing about, er, how proud they are of their long hippie hair.  Does nobody think that even a bit odd?

One of Hair’s major points in 1968 was the onstage nudity: the show opened the very day after the Lord Chamberlain’s job as theatre censor was abolished.  Nearly 40 years on, Kramer’s cast make play of how much closer in our faces the Gate audience get it... but then prove erratically coy, some stripping off, others staying timidly in undies.  There’s also a crass naked reprise to allude to the Abu Ghraib tortures.

In 1993, Michael Bogdanov staged a silver-jubilee revival of Hair at the Old Vic, which looked quaint in many ways but managed to plug into the then-current feelings about Gulf War One.  Kramer modernises too thoroughly, and in doing so he turns the show into a slab of utterly unlikeable nihilism.  What’s the point of staging any show if your efforts are dedicated to negating all its principles and premises?

Written for Teletext.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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