By Laura Heuston
Immersing us in the world of the 1967 counterculture movement immediately, the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House is now home to scaffolding adorned with colourful fabrics and a haze that will only get thicker. The characters are already moving through the space, hugging and dancing freely, completely oblivious to our presence. But that won’t last long. This is a show peppered with maniacal fourth wall breaks. Their costumes are fringed, brightly patterned and wild- they create a seamless microcosm of the hippie scene, and from the second you enter you are intrigued.
The hippie’s aren’t just on the stage though. As the audience floods in it becomes clear how important this show is to many people, as they have revitalised their old (or maybe current) attire for this special 50 year anniversary production. Tie-dye, rainbows, headbands and beads are especially present in the front rows; these fans are not going to miss a second of the action. And what action it is.
Dionne (Paulini) materialises at the top of the scaffolding, the spotlight illuminating her as if from heaven, and The Age of Aquarius has begun. The audience immediately erupts into cheers as she begins to sing, her transcendent voice bursting from her endless mass of gorgeous curls and bringing the cast together in this rousing chorus. Their movements are nimble, but not over choreographed; everything they do seems to be emerging straight from the natural flow of the music and their personalities. Each chorus member is someone unique, and even if they don’t get an entire song to themselves, this is truly an ensemble piece at its heart.
Berger (Hugh Sheridan) is up next, and though the story does revolve around his best friend Claude (Matthew Manahan), Berger gets the last bow and deserves it. He has the audience in stitches from the outset, with his brash and unashamed flaunting of his nonconformity, mixed with an absolute abundance of charm. He refers to himself as a “psychedelic teddy bear”, and he absolutely is.
But as hilarious and delightful as the initial introductions are, this story is one about fighting against injustice, and shocking cruelty. The protest takes on many forms- Sheila (Prinnie Stevens) is a civil rights activist, leading with Dionne in showcasing the power and love that women of colour have always demonstrated when opposing corrupt systems throughout history. Their voices are two of the most spectacular in the show, which is truly an achievement given the exceptional company they are in. The interracial cast was a revolutionary move when the show opened, and noting that this diversity is still not the norm 50 years later is very telling for the state of Australian theatre.
The drug positivity and nudity of course adds to the fact that this is inherently protest art about protest, and it was refreshing to see work that neither criticised, nor overly glamorised drug taking. Claude’s psychedelic trip is important for him, but it is not pleasant. Hard realities were faced through his hallucinations (as well as hilarious mockeries of American icons), and he needed to address these questions before he left.
Driving this story of course, is the narrative of the men that are lost in the battle against hatred, as a reward for doing what those in power tell them. Claude is our beautiful, blonde, naive, young soldier to be, who has been drafted for Vietnam. None of his friends want him to go- Berger burns his own draft card- but Claude feels a sense of duty. A duty that has been pushed upon him by a government more than willing to send him into one of the most horrific wars in American history, all over a political ideology that was gaining momentum on the other side of the world. He is of course, terrified. And so are we. Because everyone in the audience, and on the stage, knows what is going to happen to him. And it does. The show concludes with our heavenly spotlight, punctuated by snow, falling on body of our inevitably fallen hero. We surged to our feet with tears in our eyes the second bows began.
The power of this show is truly found in its ability to portray the tragedy of forcing a corrupt political ideology on those who rightly resist it, creating a culture of fear, guilt and death. Seeing Claude emerge in his soldiers uniform would be akin to Greta Thunberg appearing in a “Make America Great Again” shirt. The sight was sickeningly sad- a genuine gut-wrench. The finale, Let the Sunshine In, was overflowing with love, but anger was present too. Anger towards the governments that manipulate the vulnerable with misinformation, and who ignore, mock, and abuse those who stand against them. And if nothing else this show proves- beautifully and painfully- that this anger is timeless.
Image Credit: Daniel Boud
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.