Truman Capote died in 1984, but he most certainly has not been forgotten. The 2005 biopic Capote was released to great acclaim, and Philip Seymour Hoffman picked up a Best Actor Oscar for his performance in the title role. Just a year later came Infamous, starring Toby Jones as Capote and Sandra Bullock as Harper Lee. Now we have Bob Kingdom’s fascinating one-man show, in which he takes us from Capote’s chaotic childhood through to his years of prodigious creativity and success, and on to his final years as a booze-addled celebrity. On YouTube you can catch Capote in his final years, delighting and shocking chat show audiences with his outrageous bon mots. Though he was undoubtedly an exceptionally gifted writer, there is little doubt that today Capote is remembered more for being someone who performed, non-stop. ‘Truman Capote’ was, in great part, a fiction created by the man himself: ‘Man and myth, and you can’t tell the diff.’ It is this aspect of Capote that this show explores, and there are only passing references to the short stories that first put him on the map; even Breakfast At Tiffany’s is given short shrift. The focus is on the man, not his hard-won, beautifully polished prose style, though it could be argued that no writer has ever worked harder at self-publicity.
Truman Capote was highly distinctive in both appearance and voice, and he could indulge shamelessly in self-parody, as can be seen in his appearance in the film Murder By Death. There are dangers here for anyone trying to portray him. He’s a gift to impersonators, but the mannerisms can be distracting. Bob Kingdom’s performance soft-pedals the camp extravagances; his Capote is the man himself, not a caricature. He lounges in a black leather swivel chair, speaking to us from beyond the grave. He describes the poverty of his early years when, abandoned by his mother, he was raised by female relatives whose ‘sole purpose in life was to see it pass them by.’ He had a precocious talent for writing, but as an outsider he knew that ‘getting on is always about getting in.’ Kingdom digs deep into this duality in Capote’s personality; we see someone who is entirely assured of his own literary gifts, yet who is deeply insecure about his place in the scheme of things. He is the little child outside in the cold with his face pressed up against the window, wishing he could join those people who are having such fun inside. When he becomes successful he still cannot shake off the insecurity, always believing that ‘the next thing’ will rid him of his demons. His self-obsession and his constant need to be in the spotlight are not attractive qualities, and the waspish put-downs of other writers and celebs, though amusing, are rather alienating. There is hypocrisy in being so desperate to join the world of the glitterati, while ruthlessly exposing its shallowness. Towards the end of the first half of The Truman Capote Talk Show I had become tired of all the witty me-me meanness. I would have liked less of that, and more of the writing, more of the real talent. I also felt that Kingdom was trying to establish an intimacy that was proving hard to achieve in a less than packed Redgrave.
It is after the interval that Kingdom succeeds in giving this story a poignancy that allows us to empathise with a seriously flawed human being. We see him ruefully acknowledge that he has joined the long list of creative talents destroyed by addiction: Brendan Behan, Dylan Thomas, Tennessee Williams, Scott Fitzgerald et al. Capote’s addictions both to fame and to the bottle were deeply rooted in maternal deprivation. His mother’s abandonment left him desperate to be loved, and desperately self-destructive. Kingdom movingly shows us a man who could never escape the clutches of his childhood. I was reminded of the last lines of The Great Gatsby: ‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’ ★★★☆☆ Mike Whittton 26th September 2017