The inimitable Paul Capsis steps into the shoes of a queer icon in a new production, on tour from Melbourne
The idea of Paul Capsis playing legendary gay dilettante Quentin Crisp seems in retrospect the most obvious casting decision in years. The regal attitude, the complete indifference to societal convention, the wild hair; they all suggest a compatibility bordering on symbiosis. Apparently, though, Capsis didn’t get the memo.
"I’ve always been a massive fan of Quentin – he’s been a hero of mine, really – but I’ve never seen myself playing him. When I was sent the script I didn’t say yes immediately. Perhaps it was something to do with where Quentin was from, the way he spoke. I realised it would be a huge challenge, and that’s when I said yes.”
Crisp is something of a legend in queer circles, even if he remains largely unknown outside them; an openly effeminate man in drab, post-war England, he shocked and titillated mainstream society with his sexually explicit memoir The Naked Civil Servant.
Capsis brings him to life in Tim Fountain’s play Resident Alien, which details the later years, when Crisp had moved to New York and become the established elder statesman of gay culture, pontificating wittily on the talk-show circuit. Not that he ever became a true insider.
“He wasn’t afraid to be contrary,” says Capsis. “He was an outsider even in the homosexual community, because he always thought gay men were conforming to this performative ideal of masculinity.”
As someone who came out in the ’70s, Capsis relates intimately to this idea. “Gay men walked around with handlebar moustaches and flannel shirts, acting like exaggerated men, just like drag queens are exaggerated women.”
For Crisp, the acceptable face of homosexuality was cause for deep ambivalence: life got easier for gay people, but the trade off was a leaning toward caution and conservatism. It’s something Capsis struggles with even now.
“I’ve become acutely aware of what I call the ‘professional homosexual’. You see them on the tele. They’re nice and acceptable and pretty. They say all the right things, they don’t rock any boats, they don’t say anything political. They all have lovely, bubbly personalities. And all the time I’m thinking, ‘I don’t want a bar of that shit’.”
Now that he’s gotten used to the idea of bringing this legendary doyen to the stage, Capsis has started working on Crisp’s key identifiers: the voice and the hair. “Voice and hair are vital. If the hair isn’t right, you’ve got no play.”