A writer famous for her brittleness meets her greatest creature in this immensely enjoyable two-hander
Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith has a considerable reputation for the barbarous quip, and it is something of a revelation to see this skill shooting from the mouth of legendary US crime writer Patricia Highsmith, the central character in her new play Switzerland. It’s a surprisingly comfortable fit, and one of the key ingredients in this enormously entertaining and atmospheric meditation on creativity and death.
Highsmith was, of course, responsible for that most modern of sociopaths, Tom Ripley. She wrote widely, but Ripley is certainly her most enduring creation, and it is this fact – this sense of a character consuming or trumping their author, certainly in charm but also possibly in reputation – that provides Murray-Smith with the rather delicious spark. In the novels, Tom always gets away with murder. But what if he had to meet his maker?
It opens on Highsmith (Sarah Pierse) descending her spiral staircase in the rural retreat in the mountains of Switzerland where she would eventually die, physically cautious but fiercely determined, interrupted by the approach of a taxi bearing a young man. She is expecting him, and he turns out to be Edward Ridgeway (Eamon Farren), a junior player in the publishing house that desperately wants a final Highsmith novel, a Ripley novel.
The initial plot is a direct reference to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Ridgeway is the Jonathan Harker character, with a predecessor who came and tried to sign contracts but has been left mentally debilitated by his experience with the monster. No points for guessing who the Dracula character is.
Highsmith was notoriously obnoxious and brittle in later life, and Pierse does a frankly marvellous job of bringing the nastiness as well as the underlying humanity of the woman; she shuffles and stoops and squints her way around the stage, hands plunged into pockets as a way of preventing them from punching things. It’s one of the most convincing and confident performances on a Melbourne stage all year.
As the young ideologue who morphs – transgresses and transforms – into something altogether darker and more seductive, Farren is pitch perfect. His performance is so supple, so alluring and dangerous, that it becomes genuinely difficult to square his initial appearance with his subsequent transmutation. It’s dazzling work from two actors at the height of their power.
The set (Michael Scott-Mitchell) is terrific, a bifurcated stage that feels as hot and cold as its owner, and the lighting (Nick Schlieper) is magnificent, worthy of the great thrillers of old. And this is, in its own interior and existential way, a thriller. Sarah Goodes, the new associate director of MTC, directs with complete assurance, comfortable with the wit and the bile, able to hold the audience in suspense without sacrificing emotional honesty or intellectual curiosity.
MTC is having a mini-Renaissance at the moment, demonstrating that popular theatre can be challenging and entertaining, that wide appeal needn’t necessarily mean atrophy of thought. Maybe even Patricia Highsmith herself would approve, given how she railed against the public perception of her work as “high class crime fiction”. Then again, given her even greater propensity for misanthropy and meanness, maybe not.
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