Jeremy Malies in Edinburgh
“The Ballad of Truman Capote”
theSpace @ Niddry St – Upper Theatre (Round)
18:05 – 50 minutes: To 26 August
**** Four-star review
“What a swell party this is.” It sold out in its initial week and has underlined how the city that invented the one-person show can still give us outstanding examples of the genre.
It’s 28 November, 1966 and Capote has taken a suite at the Plaza City Hotel in New York. The telephonist is besieging him with calls and people are hammering on his door. Shortly, he will go down to the ground floor and host his famously lavish Black and White Ball.
Fringe veterans will remember Bob Kingdom in what we thought might be the definitive show about Capote, but this incarnation is surely better. Dublin-born and RADA-trained Patrick Moy has teamed up with Glaswegian Andrew O’Hagan who has won awards for his fiction and non-fiction as well as writing for broadsheet newspapers internationally.
Truman reflects on the people he has invited and those he has snubbed, this being one of O’Hagan’s many stratagems for taking us headlong through 40 years of friendships and feuds. There is some heavy-duty action going on downstairs in the foyer and bar. Tallulah Bankhead wants an extra ticket for a companion and McGeorge Bundy is arm-wrestling Norman Mailer with James Baldwin taking notes. Andy Warhol has been told that he can take pictures as long as he keeps out of the way of the official photographer.
The set is no more than two stools, an occasional table and a cocktail trolley from which Truman is drinking a martini slowly. Red lighting floods the black-box space and sets Truman’s tuxedo ashimmer. In the small venue, Moy acts cinematically with subtle facial tics and small gestures. However imitable his subject, this is a detailed representation and he never stoops to caricature. Bizarrely, Truman’s frequent laughter drops an octave from his shrill speaking voice, but we have evidence from contemporaries including Bacall that this is accurate.
The script is strong when Truman talks about the craft of writing and this becomes a central theme. The takeaways are that the adjective is the enemy of the noun (difficult to implement here with such a cast of characters downstairs) and that being a writer is not what you do but what you are. The man who used to drag a dictionary and notepad around with him at the age of five tells us that being published is not like being loved. Capote is sanguine about an early now lost novel that attracted no interest when touted to publishers and finally sunk like The Lusitania.
Just when you think O’Hagan may have stooped to a lazy device, he gives Moy some lyrical lines that slow the mood of the theatre to good effect. The switchboard ring and Truman accepts the call reluctantly. It’s Joan Didion who wants to interview him for Vogue. Ah! A convenient opportunity for exposition you might think. Wrong!
Keen for some name-dropping in her article, Didion asks Truman about the best party he ever attended. The atmosphere changes abruptly, and we are plunged into Southern Gothic. “I attended the best party of my life when I was ten years old!” Capote grew up as a near neighbour of fellow novelist Harper Lee in Monroeville, Alabama. He describes guests at a childhood celebration who included a Mr Radley, the organizer of the apple-bobbing stall that night.
Radley would become a subsidiary character in To Kill a Mockingbird. The wisecracks and the waspishness vanish. Moy places Capote in front of as a wide-eyed but articulate child and this moment will be one of my takeaways from this year’s Fringe. It may be a technical flourish, but it varies the tempo of the play and shows O’Hagan’s mastery of the form. His writing in this phase of the 50-minute piece is as limpid as that of Didion herself.
References to other writers abound but O’Hagan does not cop out with extended quotation, and except for a few lines from Macbeth there is scant evidence of Truman’s voracious reading. For a moment Capote shows off (though the comparison is apposite) when he likens his coming party at the hotel to the Field of the Cloth of Gold celebrations in 1520 when Henry VIII and François I had fountains flow with real wine.
Like his pal Tennessee Williams, Capote was damaged by an overbearing mother. Capote was fortunate to escape his and be brought up by relatives. When he visited Colette in Paris, she wanted to take him as a lover while he wanted her as a surrogate mother. He has little time for Brits and is dismissive of Kenneth Tynan who in an Observer article was one of the first to make the standard accusation that Capote’s only interest in the fate of the In Cold Blood killers was how the outcome would affect sales of his pending book. Moy is given the line: “The English critics with their bad breath and scones.” Capote is also dismissive of Harold Pinter, having seen The Dumb Waiter and been unimpressed.
Moy skips away from us to the accompaniment of another Cole Porter song, “You’d be So Nice to Come Home To”, and we can be encouraged by the fact that he was tolerably happy in a long-term but far from monogamous relationship with fellow writer Jack Dunphy. And this event at The Plaza was not a swan song – he would live until 1984. It’s to be hoped that Patrick Moy visits other festivals or has a long run with the play in major cities. This is a fine endorsement of Capote’s enduring literary and social relevance.
[Thumbnail image at top also from a rehearsal.]