Quentin Crisp was a English writer, best known for his memoir The Naked Civil Servant and his one-man stage show, An Evening with Quentin Crisp. An acerbic yet charming raconteur, Crisp regaled audiences and readers with the story of his life – notably his work as an actor, nude model and rent-boy – and the difficulties he faced living as an openly homosexual man in mid-twentieth century Britain. His memoir was adapted for television (with John Hurt playing Crisp), he has been immortalised in song (Sting’s An Englishman in New York) and his turn as Queen Elizabeth I in Sally Potter’s film of Orlando brought him to the attention of a whole new audience.
A Wildean figure, extravagant and outlandish, Crisp famously moved from England to New York in 1981, still a time when being conspicuously – and flamboyantly – gay was met with a certain level of suspicion. Crisp lived the last eighteen years of his life in a single room in a small New York rooming house, and it’s here that English playwright Tim Fountain’s 1999 bio-play about Crisp, Resident Alien, is set.
Fountain deploys Crisp’s own words to give us a portrait of a man who has much still to say – about life, society, politics, relationships. The plot is simple. In his squalid room – unwashed dishes litter the floor and clog the small sink, and he hasn’t dusted since he arrived (after fours years, he tells us, you don’t notice) – Crisp (Paul Capsis) readies himself for a lunch engagement with two visitors from England. As he dresses, discarding a stained robe for the outfit that defines him (salmon-pink shirt, purple velvet suit, fedora hat and monocle, kept pristine in a small box under his bed), Crisp sets forth his views – often scathingly funny – on Oprah, fame, marriage, Margaret Thatcher and (most controversially) Princess Diana.
This small room, Crisp tells us, serves as a dressing-room, a place where he readies himself to perform. Beyond the room is his stage. As he prepares to step into the outside world – applying make-up, fussily coiffing his hair – he visibly expands into the role he will play. And when, in the second act, his guests fail to arrive, he begins to shrink again, shedding his clothes, dismantling the illusion.
Paul Capsis is a national treasure, and anyone who saw his solo piece Angela’s Kitchen will know he can carry a show. He is, purely and simply, the best thing about this production. His connection with the audience is intense, and his physical embodiment of Crisp – particularly the waxing and waning of Crisp, the performer – is compelling. This is a play that demands a lot – physically and emotionally – from Capsis, and he delivers. There were a few stumbles with the dialogue on opening night, and this impacted here and there on the rhythm of the piece, but this is a performance that will even out and deepen as the run continues.
Director Gary Abrahams gives Capsis plenty of space to play with all the ornate aspects of Crisp’s persona, while still keeping the performance tethered to reality. And you can feel the grit and grime of Crisp’s room in Romanie Harper’s nicely realised set.
While the first act of Resident Alien is a gripping half hour of theatre, there are problems with the second act. The energy noticeably flags. In pushing for the necessary contrast with the first act, Abrahams flattens the mood of the second act a little too much, making the emotional crescendo that comes in the play’s final minutes seem forced. However, the main problem is with the writing. The wit isn’t as sharp as in the first act, the observations not as acute, and the same notes tend to get played over and over. Worse, the social insights are too often of the same Oprah-lite variety that are mocked in the play’s opening.
What’s also missing from the second act is a fuller revelation of the anguish – the hurt and bitterness – that linger behind Crisp’s mask, and the few opportunities there are in the script aren’t given sufficient emphasis.
There is a moment where Crisp talks about what life might have been like for him had he lived at a time when gender reassignment was more common; how happy he might have been living as a woman, running a small shop. This is one of the few glimpses we get into the raw centre of the man, and Capsis brings real pathos to the moment. It’s a vulnerability I’d like to have seen more of.
Cameron Lukey presents
by Tim Fountain
Director Gary Abrahams
Venue: fortyfivedownstairs | 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne VIC
Dates: 25 May – 12 June 2016
Tickets: $45 – $35
Bookings: 03 9662 9966 | www.fortyfivedownstairs.com