Paul Capsis was born to play the role of Emcee in Cabaret. At least, that’s what David Hawkins has always believed, so when he managed to set up a production of the seminal John Kander and Fred Ebb musical, he gave the role to the charismatic performer.

I’m a survivor. At 53, I’m still a performer, which in Australia is almost impossible, especially if you are of ethnic migrant background and openly homosexual. You are not supposed to have a career, you should be dead; or cleaning toilets; or selling fruit.

“We’ve known each other for a very long time and he always said to me, in different occasions that he wants to do Cabaret and he wanted me to play the part,” remembers Capsis, whose replies to Hawkins were something along the lines of “lovely” and “that’s nice”, or even, at some stage, that he’s probably too old for the part.

“I don’t get excited, until there’s a contract in my face,” he explains, his voice seasoned with the weariness of a person with too much experience in show business to believe what a producer says, even if this producer dismisses the ‘age’ comment and insists.

David Hawkins did deliver a contract and now Paul Capsis proves him right, dressing up as the flamboyant Emcee and captivating the audience in the newest Australian production of Cabaret, now playing at the Atheneum Theatre in Melbourne.

“I’ve always been a fan of the film, and Joel Grey,” says Capsis, referring to the classic Bob Fosse version, with Liza Minelli in the role of Sally Bowles and the haunting figure of Joel Grey as Emcee, whose performance is the one every contender for the role is measured against.

Paul Capsis decided to follow a different path.

“My idea was go back to the text, to Christopher Isherwood’s stories (the musical is based on the British writer’s semi-autobiographical 1939 novel Goodbye to Berlin) and to the characters,” says the actor.

“I also studied the world of the times; I read a lot about Weimar Republic to understand how things were leading up to the rise of the Nazis.”

Does he think, as many international observers do, that we live in similar times?

“Sadly, unfortunately, yes,” he says, weighing in each word.

“Which makes the show extremely relevant. The great thing with Cabaret is that it has wonderful songs, great costumes, fantastic design, it is very entertaining and at the same time, it is very political. It’s a history lesson, describing how the unthinkable happened when the Nazis rose to power. We should always know our history, especially us Greeks. If you don’t learn from history, that’s when you get in trouble and I think that in America in particular and to a degree in Australia people don’t know their history.
“See what is happening all around the world, which is the rise of the Right – or rather, the Right holding on for dear life by their fingernails to power. They had the power, they want the power and they refuse to let it go. That’s not unlike what the Nazis were doing, they were trying to regain the power which they had lost after WWI; they were not in control, economically, culturally, socially and they put the blame to others, to Jews. This is happening all over the world; it is happening in France, it is happening in the UK, in the United States, it is happening in Australia: blame the migrants, blame the Asians, blame the Muslims, blame the wogs, blame the outsiders, but don’t look at the fact that the world is changing and we’re in a new culture. Now everything is looking quite dire and I think things will get a lot worse. Just think that the most powerful man in the world is this bigoted narcissistic lunatic.”

It’s in times like these, though, that art is thriving, offering alternatives.

“What gives me hope is when I see people protest, take to the streets, make fun of things talk about things in an open way,” he says, and then steers the conversation to ‘the poet’ Patti Smith. “She is the greatest living artist in the world right now, because she’s reminding us that we the people, if we rise up, have the power to stop things from happening.”

Even when he’s trying to be optimistic, he delivers his comments with a stinging bite, echoing the acute commentary of the Emcee character, who plays the part of the Greek chorus in Cabaret, speaking as the conscience of both the characters on stage and the audience.

“For me, he only exists in the show, in the Kit Kat Klub, we don’t see him outside, in real life, in his day to day,” Capsis says.

“I try imagine that this man’s life; I don’t think he has much money. He knows how to be visible and invisible at the same time, how to push the boundaries, how to connect with the audience, which is predominantly men who lead a double life, many of them I think closeted gay men. He’s playing to those men and he’s acutely aware that politically things are changing in Berlin. I think he ended up in the gas chambers, or tortured to death; or possibly, he escapes and goes to another country and leads a completely different life with no connection to his old life. I think of him as a survivor.”

In what way does he relate to the character?

“I’m a survivor, like him”, he says.

“At 53, I’m still a performer, which in Australia is almost impossible, especially if you are of ethnic migrant background and openly homosexual. These are two things which would mean that in Australia you’re not going to have a career, especially if you’re over the age of 45. You are not supposed to have a career, you should be dead; or cleaning toilets; or selling fruit in a fruit shop. That’s how I’m perceived in Australia, but somehow, by some miracle, I’m still a performer at 53 and that’s my job. It’s not a hobby, it’s not a fantasy, it’s what I do for work.”

Survivors, of course, do not exist due to miraculous intervention.

“I know exactly how I survived,” he picks up.

“I worked hard and I love what I do. I don’t have an idealistic idea of my life as a performer. I just get on with my job and do my work. I don’t accept the rules and the role set out for me. I have never accepted my fate and never will. I’m determined and I don’t allow those things to stop me. I’m that kind of person. You don’t want to give me a job? That’s okay, I’ll make my own job; I’ll go and perform at this little corner in the middle of nowhere. That’s how I’ve became known as a performer, because I had the audacity to create my own work. There are all those cliquey little groups and subgroups and all these people, with their tiny power, yielding it over people and saying who they feel reflects Australian culture but I don’t work in that world. I work in my own world and sometimes there are outsiders who wish to engage with me and invite me to work with them, and I’ve been fortunate to have worked with very interesting people.”

Having painted a bleak picture of the Australian culture and his place in it, as the son of migrants, how does he perceive his Greek background?

“It means that that’s what I am,” he says. “I was born in Australia; my parents came from Greece and Malta; they separated when I was a baby, so for me it was always going back and forth from my Greek family to my Maltese family. I’m proud of that heritage and I’m aware that it was a difficult adjustment for my family of both sides to come to this country, because Australia in the ’40s and ’50s was not welcoming of migrants, just like it is now, with its refusal to accept that it is multicultural. My Greek grandmother, who was born in Egypt, raised us to know that we’re Greek and the fact that we’re born in Australia meant nothing. There was no room for the Australian thing, I didn’t know what Australia meant and I had no connection. What my family talked about was far more interesting. I relate to all that, how do we live as Greek people when we’re not in Greece anymore? It’s not easy and for a lot of us the whole adjustment and coming to terms with who we are has been quite difficult.

“I regret knowing very little Greek,” he adds.

“A couple of years ago I went to Greece and felt a real connection, a real sense of belonging but not to the people; to the earth, to the ground, the water, the trees. This made me want to go back, to see the place that my family came from.”

What does he expect to find there? “Nothing. There’s nobody left. Just some sort of connection, some sense of history. As an actor I draw from this, I draw from my blood.”