Edinburgh Festival Fringe: Mayflies author Andrew O’Hagan to launch Truman Capote play

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One of Scotland’s leading writers is to launch a new one-man play at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe inspired by his life-long fascination with the American author Truman Capote.

Mayflies author Andrew O’Hagan will be writing and directing The Ballad of Truman Capote, which will run throughout the festival at TheSpace Upper venue, on Niddry Street.

The show will portray Capote in his room at the Plaza Hotel in New York City on the night of the famous Black and White Ball he hosted at the height of his popularity, depicting “the highs and lows of the invented life, and the price of fame”.

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The Fringe show will be the first project to be launched by Northern Line, a new production company created by O’Hagan and his wife Lindsey Milligan, who has worked in the theatre industry for the past 20 years.

Writer Andrew O'Hagan. Picture: Jon Tonks/PA WireWriter Andrew O'Hagan. Picture: Jon Tonks/PA Wire
Writer Andrew O'Hagan. Picture: Jon Tonks/PA Wire

Several TV series are already in development, including an adaptation of O’Hagan’s next novel, Caledonian Road, about five families living in modern-day London, School Disco, a comedy focusing on the experience of different characters attending a 1980s school disco in Scotland, and Candleburn, which will explore several generations of the same family in a fictional housing estate in Glasgow.

The origins of The Ballad of Truman Capote can be traced to when a teenage O’Hagan was growing up in Ayrshire and would regularly travel to Glasgow to buy books and records.

He told The Scotsman: “Those trips from Ayrshire were so prized for me – it was like following the yellow brick road to the Emerald City. Places like St Vincent Street, Renfield Street and West Nile Street are still so magical to me in Glasgow.

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“I bought Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms when I was about 14 in the old John Smith bookshop on St Vincent Street. I remember being so enchanted at how a young writer, as he was when he wrote that, could get so much style and attitude into every sentence that he wrote.

Author Andrew O'Hagan. Picture: Michael Buckner/Getty ImagesAuthor Andrew O'Hagan. Picture: Michael Buckner/Getty Images
Author Andrew O'Hagan. Picture: Michael Buckner/Getty Images

"Within the week I went to the library and borrowed Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which I thought was just the perfect novella. You wouldn’t change two words in that book. There was something perfect about the expression of that period in America in the 1940s and 1950s.

"I was very high on In Cold Blood when I was a teenager and by the time I was a student, I was devoted to the relationship between journalism and fiction, and how the border between the two could be really flexible. I started writing long-form stories at Strathclyde University and his example was probably in my mind. When you’re young, you’re looking for a hero.”

O’Hagan, who describes Capote as “the inventor of self-invention”, has been writing the script since finishing work on the BBC Scotland TV adaptation of his award-winning novel Mayflies, which he was the executive producer on. The novel, which was inspired by a real-life childhood friend of O’Hagan’s, portrayed the bond between a group of teenagers in the mid-1980s and 30 years later.

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He recalled: “Working on the adaptation of Mayflies, getting close to the young actors, and bringing something from the 1980s forward into now was such a joy. But it also opened a window in my mind to other things that had happened around that time.

Lester Persky and Truman Capote at Studio 54 in New York City.Lester Persky and Truman Capote at Studio 54 in New York City.
Lester Persky and Truman Capote at Studio 54 in New York City.

"When I was 20 in 1988, I took a trip to America for the whole summer and went to the Deep South in search of where Truman grew up as I was such a huge fan of his style as a writer.

"I remember taking notes when I was there even though I wasn’t a professional writer – I hadn’t published anything at all at the time."

O’Hagan said he had been compiling "secret notes” for years on the masquerade ball thrown by Capote, which had guest list including Lauren Bacall, Frank Sinatra, Andy Warhol, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Harry Belafonte, Candice Bergen, Mia Farrow, Joan Fontaine and Norman Mailer.

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O’Hagan said: “It was a coming together of different aspects of American life that would never occur again. There was a tremendous cross-section of celebrity culture. I’ve managed to speak to a lot of people over the years who were actually there and were able to give really vivid accounts of that night.

American writer Truman Capote. Picture: Keystone/Getty ImagesAmerican writer Truman Capote. Picture: Keystone/Getty Images
American writer Truman Capote. Picture: Keystone/Getty Images

"I had been gathering all these notes and interview material to no real purpose until someone told me last year that just before the ball kicked off, as all these celebrities were arriving for this ‘party of the century’, Truman had gone to his suite for an hour, on his own. A lightbulb went off in my head.”

O’Hagan, who started his writing career at the London Review of Books, worked with the National Theatre of Scotland on Enquirer, its exploration of the state of the UK’s newspaper industry. His novels The Missing and Be Near Me have previously been adapted for the stage.

O’Hagan said: "I really wanted to spend time working on the play this year to get it onto the stage. I also really wanted to take it to Edinburgh. I felt that the mixture of comedy, philosophy, fun and life at the core of the piece would work really well at the festival.

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"If you listen to his interviews, he speaks in a kind of verse. I wanted to grab that and introduce a rhyme every second line to make it incredible fun.

"I want to have this gorgeous production with this amazing character at the centre of it. The best of this man’s mind, his excitement, exuberance, campness and over-the-topness will be manifest.

"Truman's been a life-long hero to me, but also a warning. The play is about how far you can go to make a work of art, how far can you depart from the truth and how far you can fictionalise your real experience. What happens to the brilliant, beautifully talented person who can’t find his way back?”

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