On Paul Capsis ~ theatre notes

Thursday, June 28, 2007

On Paul Capsis

The other evening, as I walked homewards through the lashing rain of a wintry Melbourne night, my heart too swollen and luminous with blood to feel the cold, I wondered what it is that makes Paul Capsis great. Not good, but great: the kind of greatness that tears open your own mortality, that makes you feel so intensely present that you are lifted out of time and find yourself poised in anguished nostalgia for these moments that are falling now, like shining water, through your open fingers.

What is it, I thought, about this funny, short, skinny, ugly, beautiful man, this man who flounces onto the stage in his brown velvet suit, staring at us with the eyes of an Egyptian heiroglyph, his gaudily be-ringed hands fluttering like broken doves as he offers his fragility and grotesqueness like a sacrifice on the altar of our possible scorn, our possible adoration? Yes, he has the voice of an angel (or perhaps several angels: he is never singular). But that is by no means the whole of it.

And then the word came to me: he has duende.

Federico Garcia Lorca defines duende thus: “The duende…is a power, not a work; it is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, ‘The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet’. Meaning this: it is not a question of ability, but of true living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation.”

And further: “All that has black sounds is duende”. And further: “All arts are capable of duende, but where it finds its greatest range, naturally, is in music, dance and spoken poetry, for these arts require a body to interpret them, being forms that are born, die, and open their contours against an exact present.”

The duende stands on the rim of the wound, inviting death to be its playmate. Janis Joplin had duende. She was that wild, raw wind that stripped each song to its bone, and then broke the bone open to its bitter marrow. When Capsis sings a Joplin song, he does not silence us because he is giving us a perfect imitation of a dead woman. No, he is summoning the death that choked her in every song she sang, and it scrapes across his throat like a hacksaw. He is summoning the blood that raced through her body, and its crimson arc as it spilled out in her magnificent voice, he is calling up within his own flesh the ecstatic awkwardness of a body on the threshold of a blazing knowledge that can only be known in the body, glorious and bright and transient as the incandescent filament that blazes in the centre of a spotlight.

He is embarrassed by neither kitsch nor art: the duende is possible anywhere. He sings a Paul Kelly song and then a ballad from Schubert’s Winterreise. In the taut-breathed silence the duende laughs like a demonic flame, and then it dares to tickle us. It has no respect for niceties. It likes crude jokes and na├»ve gestures. It lives in the fractures these crudities open within us, leaping out in the sudden gracelessness of a movement that forbids illusion. Its pretence is all fraud: all the time, it is telling the truth.

Paul Capsis is not Janis Joplin, nor Nancy Sinatra, nor Judy Garland. He is Paul Capsis, and he is a slender man with hands that are graceful white spiders climbing around his face, and he is sitting six feet away on the edge of the stage hurting us with a voice as pure as acetylene. His face is a mask, it changes all the time, it mocks us and seduces us, it says, you can have everything and nothing. His face is a mask of the most minute expressiveness; but his voice is naked.

Paul Capsis and Alister Spence, The Coloured Girls Go... @ the Beckett Theatre, Malthouse, until June 30.


Paul Martin said...

What a beautiful description of this talented person. I hadn't seen that term duende before.

Paul Capsis first came to my attention with his gritty acting performance in Anna Kokkinos' excellent Head On (here I go again with the film connection), and since then I've seen him perform occasionally on TV. He does a great Marlene Dietrich. But I've never seen him live.

Changing the subject Alison, if you have the time, go see Ma mere at ACMI, 7pm tonight. Must-see and rare type of cinema for Melbourne. I'm sure this is the type of film you and D would appreciate. I'm not going as I saw the media preview recently, but Zoe is.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Paul (I saw burlesque tonight - it's hard to make time for movies!). You should check out Lorca's essay (in a collection called Deep Song) - it's an absolutely central piece for me. And Lorca is one of the most beautiful writers of all.

Capsis is heading to the Spiegeltent in New York next. So the lucky New Yorkers get to see him - I'm not sure when he'll next be seen in Melbourne, though he'll be in Sydney after that for Tales of the Vienna Woods.

Tony Adams said...

Anoter great intro to Lorca's idea of Duende is called IN SEARCH OF DUENDE Edited by Christohper Maurer. It's a collection of essays and Poems by Lorca