The first time I saw Paul Capsis, I was a teenager seeing my very first MTC performance. He was performing as a Marlene Dietrich-style cabaret-singing narrator in Simon Phillip’s 1999 production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. For my first State Theatre play, it was an education. I remember being completely mesmerised by Capsis’ performance. His cut-glass cheekbones, high-femme make-up and lithe muscular grace in top hat and fitted tails, evoking the famously gender-bending Weimar-era star.
In Dry My Tears, Capsis performs as himself, presenting an intimate collection of songs accompanied by Francis Greep on piano, in Melbourne’s iconic fortyfivedownstairs – the raw bricks and warehouse-style barred windows exposed, lending, as Capsis quips, a ‘prison-style’ ambience to the performance. Thoughtful, simple changes in lighting states capture his expertly-handled modular shifts from dark comedy to bitter melancholic ache – while the symbiotic piano/singer relationship is honed and polished.
Capsis is a cabaret legend, and effortlessly captivates the audience from the moment he enters in feathered top hat and dark velvet jacket, his hair a halo, a life force all its own. He saunters and struts, enormous deep-set eyes flashing like his glam sequinned black shirt. His hands guide us, embracing us, pointing us out, reeling us in – his whole body contorts and shifts as he sings – leading us from the opening ‘Willkommen’ (the John Kander/Fred Ebb classic from Cabaret), a-Capsified version of Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht’s ‘Mack the Knife’ through to the mournful jazz ballad made famous by Nina Simone and Janis Joplin, ‘Little Girl Blue’ (written by Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers).
Capsis sings in French and German as easily as English – his unamplified voice ringing out powerfully in the open theatre space.
The overall show feels more like a personal journey through Capsis’ life: the highs and lows of love and loss, of grief and sadness and death. This is not political cabaret – apart from the opening reference to having two Liberal voters in the audience (to which someone behind me yelled out proudly ‘Teal!’). Yes – despite the German, this is not Weimar. But it’s something special: personal and powerful.
It’s really a joyous thing to feel so completely at ease watching a cabaret performer as seasoned as Capsis. It seemed to me an older audience (perhaps long-time fans) on the night I saw it, but I do hope younger cabaret-lovers and cabaret artists head out to see him perform. Seeing the power of a true cabaret legend who is able to hold the audience in his hand, never dropping that energy for a second – yet able to shift the focus, the mood, in the twitch of a muscle or a bat of an eyelash – is a real education in performance.
Paul Capsis – Dry My Tears presented by The Song Company and fortyfivedownstairs
Performed by: Paul Capsis
Piano: Francis Greep
Dry My Tears will be performed until 28 May 2023.