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Paul Capsis at home in Vienna

Khadija Z-Carroll

Khadija Z-Carroll is a freelance writer from Melbourne living in Vienna.

Paul Capsis, Boulevard Delirium
Nick Mangala / Schauspielhaus Vienna Paul Capsis, Boulevard Delirium
Nick Mangala / Schauspielhaus Vienna
One feels the nearness of the songs as they override time. Within each, a voice, therein a character, therein a life, and therein an era. All this breathes through Boulevard Delirium as one balances on the edge between tragedy and comedy. One feels the nearness of the Schauspielhaus’ great discovery, actor Werner Schwab, who choked to death at a party in honour of his rising fame. One feels the subsequent decline of the Vienna Schauspielhaus theatre that Barrie Kosky has recently taken over. Vienna, a city that has learnt from the darkest lessons of history, follows when Kosky “goes straight into the darkness,” says Paul Capsis, admiring the director’s courage and his influence on his own work. To illustrate he clasps his face between palms and pulls the skin back, creating a grotesque image of forced composure, and utters “I would never have done Marlene like this!”

I trust Barrie, utterly. With experience you learn that you have to protect yourself, own what you do, but then often walls go up between you and the director. A director like Barry is an outside-I. You surrender to him.

Despite the notoriously unforgiving climate of art criticism in Vienna, Kosky’s tough but brilliant judgement has produced almost only positive reports on his first couple of pieces, Medea and now the one-man ‘show-theater’ starring Capsis. Speaking to Paul about the lack of distance between himself and the subject that could reduce the show to parody (or sugary imitation) I addressed the religious element, because the gospel music struck me as too hysterical to be reverent.

Paul Capsis: I like to have a spiritual connection, that’s why I sing gospel music. I love those voices, where they go with it, how it moves them, the connection to the soul. I had a very religious upbringing. My grandmother who raised me was a strict Catholic, and I also had a Greek Orthodox father. But I rebelled at 15, somewhat like Alex Dimitriades’ character in the film Head On. I find spirit in other things, in other places.

In these women? How do you come so close to these women?

I discover them; and it’s like falling in love, with these people [Marlene Dietrich, Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, etc]. Really the first one that happened to me was Janis Joplin when I was 12; for what reason I still don’t know. I was interested in her more than in anything else. Obsessed. I had to have all the music, had to see as much film footage as I possibly could. I was already a sponge for that kind of thing anyway, with people and things that I heard about. I was obsessed with places before I became obsessed with people. I collected postcards, maps, stories, anything I could find to do with my grandmother’s native Malta. If you’re interested in something, if you love something, you totally ‘take it on.’ When I finally went to Malta I knew it so well. Then when I became obsessed with Janis Joplin it was the same thing.

I just found something lacking in where I was growing up; there was something uninteresting about Australia to me as a child. Where are the bombs, the air raid shelters, why aren’t we in costume and why are the buildings so boring?

Despite sketching those perceptive comparisons between “hot Sydney” and icy Vienna, you reiterate that Boulevard Delirium was made here. In a culture that revels in theatrical ceremonies, particularly on the several public holidays for the dead, as der Profil wrote about your show, “no one speculates whether this is art or entertainment.” Will it be hard to go back to Australia again, after living in Vienna, whose streets, as Karl Kraus wrote, are paved in culture?

There’s a huge knot here [gesticulating wildly around his stomach] when I think of going home…particularly in terms of my art. I’ve never fitted into the idea of an Australian. Vienna’s decaying presence of greatness is so there is a respect for the past. Those people lived for a reason and we should learn from them.

You’ve said failure is important. Is that because only when one fails is one free of all the possibilities of blinding success; then there appears a horrible yet also childlike freshness. With these women, are you working from a common experience of tragedy?

There’s something in the voice that connects with me. I don’t know if it’s the pain in their voice that I connect with, I think it is. There’s also a power in their voices. There is something that goes beyond. Then it’s their physicality, their life, what they did, what happened to them.

There is immense respect in your representation of them.

I hope so, that’s really important to me. I’ve seen a lot of people doing [impressions] and I was always left feeling dissatisfied. I thought, those people can never be recreated, it’s interesting to try to duplicate somebody but you can’t. So I took an actor’s approach: researched the characters, because I felt I needed to dig deep, learning as much about the person as I could from all sources to try and understand the historical and psychological makeup of that person. Everything effects the voice, the voice tells you where someone is. I had to study all this to get in there.

The Austrian press has called you a Verwandlungskuenstler, which is one of those translation-resistant German words, a compound of ‘transformation’ and ‘artist.’. As I remember, you delivered the comparison with Head On of Persephone—who spends half the time in hell and the other free of her husband, Hades, god of the underworld—as an allegory of your socially unacceptable sexuality. Can one read you returning to these characters almost every night of the week as something more than ‘an act’? One critic thought you may be a case of multiple personalities; would you say that’s true?

I lived in a fantasy when I was a kid. I liked to think I was someone else, somewhere else. But I am not a case of multiple personality disorder. I’ve really got a sense of being who I want to be. Sometimes it’s overwhelming. Sometimes before a show I think I can’t go there. Last night in particular, I was so depleted after the previous night’s show. I was anxious. I couldn’t breathe. I was thinking of where I had to go, and I was thinking I can’t, I can’t. Then Wolfgang (Luckner) the drummer starts warming up and at that point I try not to get in the way, just to let it happen.

Boulevard Delirium, performer Paul Capsis, director Barrie Kosky, Schauspielhaus, Vienna, Dec 3 - Jan 3. Capsis vs Capsis opens at The Studio, Sydney Opera House Feb 19-28

Khadija Z-Carroll is a freelance writer from Melbourne living in Vienna.

RealTime issue #47 Feb-March 2002 pg. 30

© Khadija Z-Carroll; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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