By Tim Fountain
Based on the life and writings of Quentin Crisp.
Performed by Roy Ward
Basement Theatre, Auckland | August 20-24
My first experience with Quentin Crisp was as Queen Elizabeth in Sally Potter’s remarkable Orlando. He’s not quite human in the film and his presence is like something from another galaxy or another world, at the very least. Despite that, he is absolutely magnetic and draws the camera as well as he draws the eye.
Roy Ward brings this same quality to his version of Quentin Crisp in Resident Alien, where we see the 90-year-old icon in his rather depressing apartment. Flying solo, Ward keeps the plotless show compelling with his Crisp. He nails all the things you would hope somebody playing Quentin Crisp to nail: he’s funny, quick, and reveals an intelligence behind his digs, meaning none of them seem particularly cruel, but just come off as facts. More impressively, he nails the human side of Crisp. After a genius line, he rolls his eyes, as if he’s disagreeing with himself or he’s disappointed in himself for making such an observation. It would be easy to caricature Quentin Crisp—it’s essentially what every amateur drag queen tries to do—but Ward goes a few steps further and gives us a human Crisp.
Tim Fountain’s script supports this portrayal and it’s surprisingly balanced. As much as he, and the script, clearly respects Crisp, there is much attention paid to the fact that he’s a 90-year-old man who lives alone in a dark, dank apartment, and is functionally by himself in life, other than occasional visitors and phone calls. For all the prescient things that Crisp says, there’s an awareness that his statements—and I wish I could quote them but my memory fails me—come from a life that has been hard-lived and his philosophies have been, albeit depressingly so, well-earned.
The design of the show is also very astute, especially Jessica Verryt’s set. It captures not only what a one-room apartment with a shared bathroom would look like, but what a one-room apartment that belongs to Quentin Crisp would look like. It also appears lived in, which is a grand achievement in the Basement Studio space. Peter Davison’s lighting makes the space dynamic without pulling focus, and both the costume and makeup design from Hanna Randall and Ana-Luiz Sidney and Zinzi Ellis respectively help Ward capture the essence of Crisp.
Beneath all his wit, jokes, and observations, there’s a man who has lived a half-life, a man who was openly gay in a time where it was more than just frowned upon. It made me wonder how Quentin Crisp would be if he grew up in today’s world or was born just a few decades later. Would he be the same intelligent, witty soul that gave the world a lot of joy with his books and performances, or would he be a legitimately happy person? I’m not sure whether the show is asking this question or just provoking me to ask it, but I think it’s a success no matter which one it’s doing.