News & Commentary, Opera, Stage

Paul Capsis and Gary Abrahams on Quentin Crisp

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The one-man show Resident Alien by Tim Fountain and directed by Gary Abrahams is back for a return season with Paul Capsis as the iconoclastic Englishman Quentin Crisp who, ironically, became famous in the 1970s for being a gay icon.

In the 70 minute show, the wit, raconteur and queer elder statesman opens the door to his famously filthy New York apartment for a heart to heart about life as only he knows it. Oprah Winfrey, Princess Diana, oral sex – no topic is off limits as Quentin explains, in his inimitable way, how to be happy.

Some of his views might shock audiences more now than they did in the  when he first found fame after his 1968 autobiography The Naked Civil Servant was made into a film in 1975 that also made its star John Hurt famous.

We asked Capsis and Abrahams about Crisp (1908-1999) and the show now on at 45downstairs in Melbourne before playing the Brisbane Powerhouse, May 17-20.

For those who don’t know of Quentin Crisp, how would you sum him up?

Paul Capsis: Quentin was famous for being. He had a great wit and was highly intelligent. He displayed amazing courage for the time he lived in, as an effeminate homosexual. He wrote a seminal book called The Naked Civil Servant, and this launched his career at age 60. He lived his last happy years in New York and discovered that he was actually transsexual at age 90.

Gary Abrahams: A queer 20th century philosopher who was sought after for his highly individual views on social manners and the cultivating of style. Archetypally he’s a Tiresias sort of character- an outsider, a hermit, gender non-conforming, and a prophet. On a more base level he was a very peculiar man, with distinctive style and a confronting wit… Also, he’s the guy Sting wrote that song An Englishman in New York about.

Quentin was famous for having a listed phone number and always answering. What would you want to ask or say to him if you could?

PC: Darling Quentin, thank you for your fierce courage and for being who you really are. I owe you a great debt. What do you think of Mr Trump?

GA: If there was one secret about himself that he never shared.

Do you have anything in common with Quentin? 

PC: I have everything and nothing in common with Mr Crisp. Quentin never believed in dusting or washing up. He said it was just a question of not losing your nerve, but I have a nervous breakdown if I don’t clean my home. I relate to him because I am also a practising homosexual.

GA: I have nothing in common with him. I don’t find him particularly relatable at all. I do find him endlessly fascinating and intriguing, and simply an extraordinary character to study. He breaks all the rules and seems to have an envious ability to transcend all the negative emotions that wound us all – shame, guilt, regret, jealousy, low self-esteem, etc. I think people, myself included, enjoyed him so much because they felt they could learn that from him – how to rise above the painful mess of life.

How does it feel to be revisiting the show two years after you staged its first season in Australia? What’s changed?

PC: It feels slightly odd and a bit like deja vu. I’m glad we’re doing the play again. In two years, I have changed as a performer. I want to be more Quentin this time round and less me on stage. Me still creeps in though. We have Trump ruling the world and there is more chaos in general, so Quentin’s words have double the meaning now.

Quentin Crisp during a Q&A session for his book and the film ‘The Naked Civil Servant’. Source: Wikipedia

GA: It’s always a pleasure to revisit a work. I’m thrilled that this show is getting another outing. His philosophies don’t date, which is extraordinary! I think when you revisit a show, you inevitably revisit who you were at the time you initially made the show, which is a fascinating exercise in itself. Part of the challenge is trusting the artist you were then and allowing those choices to remain, rather than feeling you need to reinvent it. The show connected wonderfully with audiences last time around, so you have to trust that you did something right and let it be. However, the work does deepen over time. It feels like a more grounded show now.

What are the challenges of creating Quentin Crisp onstage for a 2018 audience?

GA: Social politics has shifted a lot since the ’70s and ’80s, and even ’90s, when Quentin was at his peak. Some of his views are startlingly conservative and contrarian. People always assume that queer figures must be left-leaning and politically progressive. It’s confronting when you learn otherwise. I suspect Quentin will challenge some modern audiences with certain views.

From a performer and director’s perspective, over the course of the shows 70 minutes, how do you think the audience’s relationship with Quentin evolves? 

PC: From my memory of performing the show back in 2016, the show starts with everyone having a big old laugh with Quentin, or at Quentin. There were nights when he would look out into the audience and see terse millennial youths, mostly homosexual, with their arms folded and huffing and puffing at his world view. Then there would be the shock of the filth and the disgrace.

GA: I hope that the relationship shifts from one of fascination and amusement to one of empathy and understanding. That by the show’s end you begin to see not just the celebrated figure of style and wit, but also the old man who spent the majority of his time alone, in a filthy bedsit, waiting for the phone to ring.

What would Quentin have to say about the state of the world in 2018? 

PC: Quentin would say, “I told you, nay, I warned you”. He would have a laugh at Mr Trump, and say that Melania needs an intervention. He would find the friction between Russia, China and the US a thrilling possibility of us all being blown to smithereens. He would say that ISIS is Fashion and suicide bombers had style. He would say, “Are people still obsessed about the Royals, and Royal marriages? Really?” He would also roll around the floor laughing at the idea of Brexit and say, “I never believed in ‘Abroad’ unless it was New York”.

GA: He’s already said it all. He was prophetic in his views and suspicious of where the world would end up. Reading back on his musings, it’s startling to see just how accurate he was in his predictions.

Resident Alien is in Melbourne at 45downstairs, 45 Flinders Lane Melbourne until Sunday. 

2 responses to “Paul Capsis and Gary Abrahams on Quentin Crisp

  1. I can’t wait to see the show. Sounds fascinating. I will never forget “The Naked Civil Servant”, what a brave man Quentin Crisp was, and what a superb TV series. Time for a replay surely.
    Paul Capsis is always such an amazing performer in what ever he does, I know it will be a great theatrical event.

  2. Thank you Paul Capsis for such an astounding performance, absolutely brilliant. The theatre was in silence at the end, so overwhelming, exhausting and stimulating. Any one interested in live theatre must see this incredible show.
    I would like to hear other theatre goers thoughts on the whole play, production and of course Paul Capsis.

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