Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, November 7
Joanna Murray-Smith’s new play Switzerland is a gripping psychological thriller about renowned crime writer Patricia Highsmith that creeps up on you slowly and then has you on the edge of your seat.
Highsmith’s novels include The Talented Mr Ripley, one of several she wrote about the psychopathic, sexually ambiguous Tom Ripley, and Strangers on a Train, which Alfred Hitchcock adapted for the screen.
Born in Texas, but bitter about her lack of serious recognition in her homeland as opposed to Europe where she was feted for her literary skill and psychological insight, she lived her last years in Switzerland, land of neutrality, secret bank accounts, picturesque mountain chalets and cuckoo clocks.
Widely regarded as a tough cookie, the eccentric, tight-fisted, hard-drinking, chain-smoking Highsmith (who was bisexual but more drawn to women) was considered misogynistic and cruel, even by her friends. She loved guns and cats and had a strange thing about snails. But Murray-Smith seamlessly weaves into the dialogue pretty much all that you need to know about her.
Murray-Smith’s play was commissioned by Los Angeles’ Geffen Playhouse – but fortuitously for Sydney audiences they agreed to Sydney Theatre Company staging the world premiere.
Set in the early 1990s, the cleverly constructed, tense drama finds Highsmith (Sarah Peirse) living with cancer towards the end of her life in Switzerland.
A young man called Edward Ridgeway (Eamon Farren) arrives from her New York publisher bearing jars of peanut butter (the wrong brand) and cans of soup.
Slightly nerdy and understandably nervous given the incident with the knife that befell the publisher’s previous emissary, Edward’s mission is to try to convince her to sign a deal to write one final Ripley novel.
Highsmith lacerates him with withering, caustic wit, delivered by Peirse with savagely funny brutality. But Edward – who is passionate about Highsmith’s oeuvre – holds his own (even if he can’t pronounce oeuvre) and things start to shift into a game of cat and mouse where it’s not clear who’s the cat.
Michael Scott-Mitchell’s detailed, realistic set (based apparently on Highsmith’s final Swiss home) – with large fireplace, leather chairs, desk with typewriter, framed weaponry, a portrait of Highsmith, thick windows and spiral staircase leading upstairs – makes a virtue of the awkward, wide stage and works superbly in a way you wouldn’t expect for an intimate two-hander.
Nick Schlieper lights it so that it becomes a place of shifting light and shadows, and Steve Francis’s slightly creepy music heightens the growing tension.
Scott-Mitchell’s costuming is also excellent with loose-fitting jeans and mannish socks and shoes for Peirse, and gradually changing outfits for Farren that reflect his character’s evolution.
Sarah Goodes directs an immaculately paced production, drawing superb performances from the two actors, who take you with them through every tiny emotional twist and turn.
The way Peirse reveals sudden flashes of vulnerability, pleasure or admiration beneath the Teflon-tough, gruff exterior is done with a flawless subtlety. She totally inhabits the role. Edward’s transformation is brilliantly judged in an equally subtle performance by Farren.
Murray-Smith celebrates and emulates Highsmith’s writing, while giving us an insight into her fascination with violence and the dark side of human nature. At the same time, she explores a range of ideas including Highsmith’s relationship with her imagination and characters all the while playing intriguing mind games with us. The play is often laugh-out-loud funny too.
As for how the song Happy Talk from the musical South Pacific fits into all this – well, you’ll just have to go and see, but it’s an inspired theatrical moment.
Running 100 minutes without interval, Switzerland is a thrilling piece of writing given a superb production by STC. In some of Murray-Smith’s previous plays you feel her putting words into the mouths of the characters to serve the debate and themes she is discussing. Here the dialogue feels utterly truthful, emerging organically from the mouths of the characters. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it’s her very best play to date. Highly recommended.
Switzerland plays at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until December 20. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 9250 1777
A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on November 16