Victoria Melody likes to get stuck in. Not one for watching from the sidelines, Melody makes art by immersion. For Northern Soul, she tried her hand at pigeon fancying and northern soul dancing. In Major Tom, she subjected both herself and her basset hound to unforgiving judgement, entering dog shows and beauty pageants. She doesn’t do things by halves.
Hair Peace, though, is different. Melody and her adventures are still at its centre, but this show is more documentary than ethnography. It follows on directly from Major Tom, in which her mission to become Mrs UK found her kitted out with hair extensions. Wondering just where this hair came from, Melody decided to track it down, turning unlikely sleuth in search of her ponytails’ original owners. It’s a hunt that takes her from the temples of India to the shopping malls of Russia, via hair salons and forensics labs.
As with Major Tom, there’s more here than meets the eye. The trade in human hair – a booming and unregulated market – is a synecdoche for global capitalism, which finds profit everywhere. Nowhere is this clearer than at India’s Tirumala Venkateswara temple, where pilgrims queue for days to shave their heads in religious ritual. Gathering up all those unwanted locks, the temple sells them on for millions of pounds each year. At least the temple, though, gives 70% of the income to charity; elsewhere, hair traders have far fewer scruples.
None of this comes as a great surprise. Scratch away a little at any luxury we enjoy in the West and somewhere along the twisting supply chain it’s likely to be built on exploitation. What makes hair such a startling example is its source, grown and harvested by human bodies. As a reminder of that, Melody switches rapidly from wig to wig, holding up her mysterious ponytails to the audience and passing round handfuls of hair. Unlike the men – and they are almost always men – who make money from this commodity, we’re never allowed to forget where it’s come from.
Serious as it may sound, it’s all told with Melody’s trademark affable goofiness. Scooting across the stage on a wheelie chair, the blast of a hairdryer suggesting her flights from continent to continent, Melody cheerfully recreates her journey. As with Major Tom, there’s video footage to back up her anecdotes, introducing us to everyone from Neeharika, a 25-year-old on a pilgrimage to shed her hair at Tirumala Venkateswara, to Melody’s hair extension wearing cousin. Melody has a way of disarming those she meets along the way, wringing out extra material through sheer innocuous charm.
Unlike Major Tom, though, there’s a nagging sense of something missing from Hair Peace. Imply as it might the bigger, nastier forces of capitalism and globalisation, the show never really interrogates these. They’re just there, somewhere underneath the whimsy and the flowing locks. It also lacks the completeness of its theatrical progenitor, perhaps because this time it’s looking from the outside in. Ultimately, Melody is better as an insider than she is as an investigator.