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A close-up of Paul Capsis with dark eye makeup, bathed in red light
Photograph: Supplied

Paul Capsis double dips at Sydney Festival 2021

You wait one year, then two shows led by the theatrical darling come along at once

By Stephen A Russell
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It looked like 2020 was going to be one of the busiest years of cabaret queen Paul Capsis’ career. It got off to a great start with an appearance in STC’s new take on Terence Rattigan play Deep Blue Sea. And then the whole world got washed overboard. “Literally in a week, all of my work disappeared,” he recalls. “I haven’t stopped in 37 years. I was bracing myself for a very busy year, very physical work with a lot of singing, and then I sat on the lounge on pause.”

As did we all. And like many of us, Capsis found himself reacquainting himself with abandoned hobbies, rediscovering his passion for sculpting clay figurines – “You have to really focus on what you’re doing, you can’t think of anything else” – and throwing himself into cooking shows on Netflix. “My body got very big,” he chuckles. “I’m in my latter-day Elvis period.”

Whether that results in him donning rhinestone jumpsuits remains to be seen, but one thing’s for sure: Capsis has no intention of idling in first gear now the arts are revving up again. Lockdown revealed what he always suspected. “I’m a workaholic,” he levels. “I don’t know what to do with myself when I’m not working.”

Luckily for us, 2021 is a whole new year, and the fabulous star of stage (Angela’s Kitchen, Cabaret) and screen (Head On) is getting out of leisurewear and back into our hearts. He’ll be kept very busy indeed, fronting not one but two Sydney Festival shows this January. He's performing in glam rock show Rapture: a song cycle of Desire and Ecstasy, Murder and Mayhem alongside fellow Rocky Horror Show alumnus iOTA. In the Vivaldi-infused The Last Season, a climate crisis-inspired physical theatre work created with Force Majeure, he teams up with fellow theatrical legend Pamela Rabe and Irish superstar Olwen Fouéré.

“The gluttony theme continues,” Capsis chuckles of his double bill. And fair play, because at one stage it looked look neither show would happen. A fully staged musical iteration of Rapture was meant to open at Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre this year but was cancelled when lockdown struck. The Sydney Festival version was at risk of losing creative team members stuck, until very recently, in the Victorian capital. The Last Season posed logistical problems, too.

You start panicking about money, how you’re going to live… and the whole question of the performing arts industry, that we were seen as non-essential and were probably going to be the last industry that would re-emerge

“There was a very strong chance Olwen wasn’t going to be able to come back into Australia from Ireland,” Capsis reveals, with Melbourne’s extended lockdown also meaning that Rabe’s participation was just as touch-and-go. “I started thinking, ‘Well, I’m not going to end up doing anything, and this is a nightmare. You start panicking about money, how you’re going to live… and the whole question of the performing arts industry, that we were seen as non-essential and were probably going to be the last industry that would re-emerge. So it was bleak.”

Capsis become the first star to perform live to an empty stage at the Opera House – as part of its digital platform From Our House to Yours – and he’s looking forward to shaking off the cobwebs, and those wobbles, to overcome his temporary hermit mode. “I was a little weirded out,” he says of returning to rehearsals, with Rapture in the morn and the Force Majeure-led The Last Season in the arvo, with Fouéré currently beaming into the process via Zoom from her quarantine hotel in Sydney.

Expect wild child antics when Rapture takes to Sydney Festival pop-up stage the Headlands at Barangaroo. Capsis is pumped to rock out with iOTA once more. “He was Frank-N-Furter to my Riff Raff, I’ve always been a huge fan,” Capsis says. “I think he’s the greatest male singer in the country, and absolutely should be the biggest rock star in Australia, if not the world.”

Almost seven years in the making, Rapture was conceived of by director Michael Kantor, who also suggested adding iOTA to the bill. Guitarist Jethro Woodward arranged the musical component, drawing on new songs and choice covers from the likes of Megan Washington, Deb Conway, Willy Zygier, Blondie and the Kinks, and will join them live on stage, all sporting fabulous costumes whipped up by designer Anna Cordingley. “It’s a little bit on the dark side,” Capsis teases, “It’s next-level stadium rock.”

The last time Rabe and Capsis worked together, he played her mother in STC’s Tales From the Vienna Woods. “I had to slap her,” he gasps. “I was a nasty mother.”

He’s in constant awe of Rabe’s process. “I feel very fortunate that I get to work with her, because she’s extraordinary to watch. A genius, let’s be honest.”

Under the guiding hand of physical theatre company Force Majeure’s artistic director Danielle Micich, The Last Season is shaping up to be extraordinary and also deploys a 13-strong contingent of lucky young players. Their contribution staggers Capsis, who inhabits the elemental force of autumn in the show. “I was so moved by the children,” he says. “I honestly wanted to crawl into a dark room and sob. They were so beautiful. They’ve worked so hard. It’s something else.”

Not unlike luminous super trouper Capsis himself. I hope next year he's feeling more summer/spring than winter, I offer, and he enthuses, “I have a lot of hope.”

Find out what else you can see at Sydney Festival

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