Quentin Crisp was an English writer, model and actor, who died in 1999 at the age of 90. He was a genuinely unique character, who spent his early years as an androgynous nude model in 1930s London, and found fame as the first to speak so candidly about life as a gay man.
Currently playing Sydney’s Seymour Centre, Tim Fountain’s Resident Alien is a piece that invites audiences into Crisp’s famously filthy New York apartment for what’s described as an unforgettable heart-to-heart about life as only he knew it.
Taking on the role of Crisp in Resident Alien is five-time Helpmann Award winning actor, Paul Capsis. Theatre People had the good fortune to speak to Capsis about the legendary man he’s bringing to life for Australian audiences.
“He was a very contradictory person, a very interesting man,” Capsis says. “There was so much that he had to say about the world, about everything.”
In fact, Capsis cites Crisp as a personal hero, first reading one of his works many years ago.
“I read it way back when and admired this man. I just couldn’t believe that such a person existed in that time,” he recalls. “He suffered a great deal, being an outwardly effeminate homosexual.”
In preparing to take on Crisp, Capsis embarked upon extensive research. During that process, he became increasingly intrigued by Crisp, spending many hours reading and watching several documentaries. He also came to learn more about the way in which Fountain created Resident Alien.
“Mr Fountain interviewed Quentin extensively and filmed him in his apartment in New York,” Capsis tells Theatre People. “When he completed the piece, Resident Alien, he presented it to Quentin.”
Capsis says Fountain subsequently asked Crisp if he’d read the script.
“[Crisp] said, ‘No I haven’t read it. It doesn’t really matter what you say about me. I don’t really care’. Apparently, he never read it.”
It’s Capsis’ understanding that Crisp didn’t really approve of the idea of someone else playing him. He thought someone doing so would be mocking him.
“Had he read the script, he would’ve discovered that, in fact, 98% of the script is really Quentin’s work. It’s literally lifted from Quentin’s books,” Capsis says.
“What Mr Fountain does cleverly is he takes all this writing and then creates, in essence, a monologue.”
Capsis says the version of Resident Alien currently on stage in Sydney has been revised for 2016 audiences.
“The original is quite long, and there are a lot of references to the time – the late 90s,” Capsis explains.
“Gary Abrahams, the director, really pulled together a great team of wonderful people… lighting, sound, design… And Gary himself, as a dramaturge, just got it perfectly right, I think, in terms of what we kept, what we didn’t keep and to make it a 21st century piece of theatre without tricks.”
Before arriving in Sydney, Resident Alien completed a short season at Melbourne’s fortyfivedownstairs. Performing at the venue also afforded Capsis the opportunity to experience another piece of theatre that’s left a considerable impression on him.
“While we were rehearsing, I had the chance to see one of the best plays I’ve seen in years – Patricia Cornelius’ play SHIT… and was gobsmacked by this piece of theatre,” Capsis says.
“I found out that no one in Sydney is prepared to put it on, which astounds me! I do not understand that at all.”
Returning to Resident Alien, Capsis discusses the brevity of the lead-up to its Melbourne opening.
“We had a very short rehearsal period – three weeks, which is, I think, challenging for a difficult, wordy piece.”
That said, Capsis was pleased with audience reactions to the work.
“From night to night, it was always a different response… and it was an interesting collection of people. I could see a real cross-section of the community,” he says.
“I had no idea what to expect… You never know how something’s going to work, whether you feel it’s good or not. But it did go off. People just seemed to really respond…People wrote me letters, people sent me gifts… [it was] just incredible!”
Capsis begins to recollect some of the individual responses to the piece that stood out.
“I’d hear sometimes people groaning or tut, tutting at things Quentin had to say about the world, and I loved that because…. they’re really listening, they’re really engaged,” he says.
“I remember there were some young gay men in the audience in Melbourne, and I could see them scowling a little bit. It looked like they were… quite offended by Quentin’s view of homosexuality. And I thought that was really interesting, [and] the more they scowled, the more I directed certain passages to them.”
So, is there anything Capsis hopes Sydney audiences will take away from Resident Alien?
“I think what I would want people to take away from it is Quentin’s message about life and about being yourself. I think, ultimately… that’s what I want. The core message of Quentin is to always be yourself at all costs and, whatever it takes, you must always be who you truly are.”
RESIDENT ALIEN – SEASON DETAILS
Dates: Playing now until Saturday 23 July
Venue: The Reginald Theatre, the Seymour Centre (Corner City Rd and Cleveland Street Chippendale)
Tickets: Adult $48, Concession $42
For further information, program information and bookings, visit www.seymourcentre.com or phone the Seymour Centre Box Office on 02 9351 7940.