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November 8, 2014


This review first appeared in an edited form on artsHub.

A sharp triangular fragment of a room – a lounge room, a roaring fire, a couch, armchair. To one side, a desk stuffed with papers and a typewriter. A spiral staircase winding through the ceiling; a book-lined room off the side. This is the world of author Patricia Highsmith as envisaged in Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Switzerland, a new play by Joanna Murray-Smith originally commissioned by Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. Here, on a set purportedly based on Highsmith’s home in Switzerland, it is always dark outside, while inside all manner of murderous deeds are concocted alongside plots for future novels. Featuring many nods to her body of work, as well as drawing upon the rich connotations and associations of the genre and period itself, Switzerland sees Highsmith – the author of the Tom Ripley novels as well as Strangers on a Train and The Two Faces of January – becoming the subject of an enthralling two-hander stage-thriller set late in her life.

Safely ensconced in her Switzerland eyrie, her work is interrupted by a visit from a young man, an American, Edward Ridgeway, who says he has come from her publishers to see if she won’t sign a contract for another Ripley novel. As the play – and the days – progress, the ageing author and her young visitor become locked in a game of wits and words from which there can only be one escape. Directed by STC Resident Director Sarah Goodes, Switzerland sets out at a cracking pace, a rapid-fire succession of questions-answers-more questions, as Patricia (the character) and Edward try to fathom each other out. As this first act gives way to the second and third, the pace slows into something of an elegant game of cat-and-mouse or cards, as the allure of a new novel and the tantalising prospect of seeing a great author in action become too much for them to bear, and they try not to reveal their full hand to the other just yet. It’s scintillating, mesmerising, sexy and more than a bit heady, as their exchanges become charged with a tangible buzz, a hum of possibility, danger and something else – the presence of the inevitable ending.

Sarah Peirse as a bewigged Patricia is mesmerising, her voice and mannerisms gruff and ambiguously masculine. As fiery and passionate as she is a skilled writer and manipulator of characters and words, Peirse’s Patricia is a force to be reckoned with, and she finds her match in Eamon Farren’s Edward. Murray-Smith’s Patricia, like her real-life counterpart, is not afraid to speak her mind, regardless of whom she might offend, and she is as fearless as she is controlling and articulate. Despite starting out as a relatively fresh-seeming young man, Farren soon transforms into more than just a foil to the cantankerous septuagenarian. As with so many of his performances, there’s a cheekiness and a capriciousness to Farren that is utterly beguiling, and as he comes out of his shell and stakes out his ground, he begins to roar and prowl, while Patricia roars back, both giving as good as they get and not backing down. There’s a marvellous scene about halfway through when Edward challenges Patricia for details of the new Ripley novel and you start to see the story take shape before your eyes; soon, the two of them are throwing ideas back and forth and it’s as thrilling as it is frustratingly tantalising – such an encounter never happened.

Michael Scott-Mitchell’s set, Nick Schlieper’s lighting and Steve Francis’ sound are all splendid, creating the rich and interior world of the author without losing any of the suspense or downplaying any of the genre-trappings which go with the thriller. Patricia has a line early on in the play about how she likes the darkness because you can do so much more than in the daytime, because everything seems edgier, sharper, more intriguing. There’s a veritable knife-edge in Murray-Smith’s play, and it is a delight to see such an engrossing, smart, clever and at times disarmingly funny play tackle the very questions which plague any author or creator – ideas of longevity, worth, reception, reputation. There’s a relentlessness to the play, an unforgiving drive and a refusal to go gently into the long night ahead, and Murray-Smith and her Patricia, just as much as the real Highsmith, are darker and more ambiguous – more fascinating – people, characters, than we could ever imagine.

If you’d been following the signposts as the play hurtled towards its conclusion, you might have seen Murray-Smith’s twist coming, and while it seems slightly too easy an answer, it is still every bit as thrilling and brilliant as it should be, and still manages to come as a shock. As the lights dim, you cannot help but smile at the last moments, at the dramatic irony of details of Patricia’s final story becoming her own final moments. While the production is strong and more than engrossing, there seems to be a slow pocket about an hour in, which it will no doubt navigate as the production finds its feet. Alongside Children of the Sun and Noises Off, this is one of the strongest productions at the Sydney Theatre Company this year, and is an absorbing and hypnotic piece of theatre.

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