Au revoirBoulevard Delirium ~ theatre notes

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Au revoir

This is a brief good bye - I'm off on a six week tour of England and Ireland, where I'll be reading poetry to those foolish enough to invite me. If you happen to be in that part of the Northern Hemisphere, you can check out my reading dates here.

After a tedious succession of colds and viruses, I'm more than happy to be missing the bulk of the Melbourne winter. But I'm not so happy to miss out on the first production of King Lear (MTC) I can remember in my home town, or Pamela Rabe at the Malthouse in Woman-Bomb. There's some seriously interesting theatre on while I'm away... But hey, them's the breaks.

Meanwhile, my thanks to the readers of this blog. There are more of you every week, and your comments, public and private, keep me going and make me believe that what I'm doing is worthwhile. And thanks also to the theatre companies for their support. I'll be back at the end of July, refreshed and reinvigorated. See you then!

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Boulevard Delirium

Boulevard Delirium with Paul Capsis, directed by Barrie Kosky. From Schauspielhaus Wien, @ the Malthouse Theatre, June 1 until June 26.

Now I've been to Boulevard Delirium, I see what all the fuss is about. Paul Capsis is something else. But how do you begin to describe a talent like this?

About half way through the show - and this is a show - I began to wonder if there was anything that Capsis couldn't do with his voice. By the end, I was pretty well convinced that he can sing anything. I might be wrong, but I wouldn't bet money on it. Capsis must be one of the great theatrical voices of this century.

But that incredible voice - so flexible it can gravel up for Janis Joplin, tenderise for Nina Simone, scream, bark or howl in the middle of an impassioned pop aria - is only half of it. Capsis is a performer of rare quality: he's on, full throttle, from the first moment he appears on stage in top hat and tails, his eyelids gleaming with sequins, lasciviously inviting his audience into the gritty, sensual, passionate delirium of his world.

Boulevard Delirium eschews, immediately, the misogyny that sometimes creeps into drag shows. Capsis opens with an obscenely hilarious monologue about lust. ("I'm horny!") What I found interesting was how Capsis' expression of desire for a man was at once that of a man and a woman. He doesn't merely impersonate women; but neither does he wholly become them. He enacts a series of transformations that are all, ultimately, aspects of himself. By the end of the evening, the masks drop to reveal Paul Capsis - whoever he is - singing on stage in a black tank top.

This is a magic which doesn't depend on gowns and diamente; it's a lot more subtle and radical than that. And its multifacedtedness is rather hard to describe, and as much reflected in the musical arrangements as the performance.

It's unsettling, for example, how the bewitchment of this performer can make you believe (as when he is being Judy Garland) that you are watching a beautiful woman; unlike the aesthetic of drag, you completely lose sight of any sense of artifice. But this illusion will be harshly dispelled almost at once, making you totally aware of his masculinity. And in the next moment he is neither, an androgynous trickster and parodist giving us a grotesquely exploding Marlene Dietrich.

I suspect it's a sorcery that is ultimately powered by emotional, rather than sexual, identification. Behind the energy of these songs are implicit stories of tragedy and courage. Beyond all his talent, the secret to Capsis' coruscating presence is his bravery as a performer. He holds nothing back.

His performance of Billie Holiday's Don't Explain was something like channelling. He adopted some classic props, dressing backstage with his back turned to the audience, and slowly coming into the light. In silhoette, the effect was spooky: it might have been Lady there, swaying to the music. And then, if you shut your eyes, you would swear it was Holiday singing. The whole audience seemed to be holding its breath. I thought of Frank O'Hara's great poem, The Day Lady Died:

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

I can find no greater compliment. The same goes for his heartbreaking rendition of Nina Simone's Little Girl Blue ("Sit there, count your little fingers / Unhappy little girl blue") which had the audience pin-drop silent. This is homage in its truest sense: the interpretation of the work of one great artist by another.

Barrie Kosky's direction takes cabaret conventions and gives them a 21st century twist: abrasive, confronting, exhilarating and moving, it does to cabaret what Capsis does to female impersonation. It draws lovingly on conventions from vaudeville and cabaret and marries them with the aesthetic of a rock concert and a contemporary theatrical intelligence: it's theatre dressed as cabaret, rather than cabaret itself.

The stage is straight cabaret: huge red curtains which draw back to reveal a proscenium edged with lights like a dressing table. The band is arranged in a semi-circle around the back, and Capsis moves between the band members and a thrust forestage that juts out into a row of candle-lit tables where some audience members have close-up views. The rest is created by Michael Zerz's inventive lighting design.

The band - Chris Bekker, Tom Fryer, Roman Gottwald, Niko Schauble and Geri Shuller - is hot, hot, hot, and Roman Gottwald's musical direction unfalteringly bold, with astounding arrangements of some classics. The musical references range from contemporary funk to Kate Bush to blues to gospel. You might get 30 seconds perfectly-phrased and performed Sex Pistols in the middle of another song. At no point, as an audience member, can you stop and say, oh, it's that kind of music. It's as live as you can get.

Don't miss this one: you'll regret it if you do.

Malthouse Theatre

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