Friday May 24, 2024
SWITZERLAND
Review

SWITZERLAND

By Diana Simmonds
May 8 2024

SWITZERLAND, Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli, 7 May-8 June 2024. Photography by Brett Boardman: all – Toni Scanlan and Laurence Boxhall

Joanna Murray-Smith’s imagining of a couple of days in the later life of literary anti-heroine Patricia Highsmith is a 90-minute tour de force. First staged in Sydney 10 years ago, by Sydney Theatre Company, its revival this year by Ensemble Theatre is timely – and very welcome. It coincides with a fresh wave of interest in Highsmith through the critically and popularly successful Ripley, a six-part Netflix adaptation featuring her fabled character Tom Ripley, of whom the series promo says: “He’s a liar. It’s his profession.”

The same could be said of the author – and the playwright – and that is not a criticism! Highsmith was born in 1921 and the first of five Ripley novels, The Talented Mr Ripley, was published in 1955. Her work, particularly these novels, is more than timeless, rather it transcends her life and times and is its own zeitgeist. And that’s what makes her endlessly remarkable and makes Murray-Smith’s play equally so. Switzerland is neither a period piece, nor a pastiche, but places its two characters and their time and locale in a distinctive “now”.

Edward Ridgeway (Laurence Boxhall), an emissary from her US publisher, arrives on her doorstep in the Alps above a Swiss village. Highsmith (Toni Scanlan) is not happy to see him and her behaviour towards the hapless young man is akin to a particularly rabid predator. And a predator with a very funny and caustic tongue.

SWITZERLAND

The opening night audience's laughter grew in volume and frequency even as Highsmith got meaner and meaner. There is something irresistible about such shocking verbal fisticuffs, particularly when the victim is such a willing punchbag. And Edward is willing because he’s been tasked with the impossible: bring back a signed contract tying her to a final and sixth Ripley novel. If he succeeds, his future with the publishing house is assured. If he fails, as is expected, he’ll be selling insurance door-to-door when he returns to New York.

Despite his every effort, Edward can do nothing to please her, even bringing the wrong sort of peanut butter in the suitcase full of supplies for the expatriate. Yet he persists and gradually Highsmith is amused by him and a crack in her psychological armour opens to let him in – almost. The cat-and-mouse game is played out in the study-living room of the Swiss eyrie. Veronique Benett’s set and lighting are apt and interesting: on the author’s desk is a portable typewriter, perpetually warmly lit by a lamp – which seems more of a threat to the blocked writer than a comfort. In a glass cabinet is her collection of antique pistols and knives, and these are somewhat unnerving too, although for no discernible reason. There is a record player, and she likes cast recordings of classic musicals, which is also disconcerting, although it takes a while to work out why.

The chalet’s walls seem designed to withstand an avalanche. The windows are too small and high to reveal any but glimpses of the mountains and meadows that make Switzerland famous. With 90 minutes to take it all in, the ornery unhappiness and sardonic worldview of the author are made clear. And she is queen of it all and always has been: Edward tells her that the last executive who came seeking her signature is still suffering a breakdown.

SWITZERLAND

Directed by Shaun Rennie in a manner that’s at once relaxed and taut, the focus is on the gradually shifting interactions and we’re sucked in without realising. Scanlan and Boxhall are superb at their opposite ends of the arc of human behaviour. She is such a bitch and hilarious with it, slouchy and louche in Beebo Brinker-lezzo-wear. He is a lamb to the slaughter who refuses to lie down and die in either his neat suit or neat jumper. (Costumes: Kelsey Lee.)

Switzerland is a cunning piece in suggesting we are learning firsthand about Patricia Highsmith when that couldn’t be further from the truth. But the truth, in the hands of the woman who invented Ripley, is a relative quality and as elastic as creativity could ever be. Switzerland is a captivating play and this production is equal to it. Recommended without reservation.

 

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