The term masterpiece is used to describe a work of outstanding creativity, skill and workmanship. Although it is far too early to declare that Switzerland is Joanna Murray-Smith’s most celebrated work, there is no doubt that the playwright has founded something extraordinary with this fictional account of American author Patricia Highsmith’s very last days. Along with Sarah Peirse’s phenomenal performance as Highsmith, this is a production that will be remembered as one of the grandest achievements from two of contemporary theatre’s geniuses.
Highsmith died in Switzerland in 1995, but the story takes place in 2001. In her austere living room, she receives a guest Edward Ridgeway, who has arrived from New York as a representative from her publisher, despatched to obtain Highsmith’s signature on a contract for a new instalment to her famed Ripley series of novels. The young Ridgeway is bright and aspirational but timid in the presence of the great writer, who has no qualms about berating and offending the rookie at every opportunity. Ridgeway presents himself as a devotee of Highsmith’s oeuvre, and uses all his might to complete the task at hand. The subject of his imploring however, is difficult and mean, and she proceeds to turn his visit into a living hell. Like Highsmith’s books of suspense in the crime fiction genre, Switzerland too is intriguing and seductive, with an unmistakeable Hitchcockian sensibility to its plot and pace. The breathtaking work is a remarkably gripping experience not commonly found in live performances that tend to appeal to emotions more than they do our very visceral responses and indeed, nerves.
It is always tempting to think of writings about writers to be at least partially autobiographical, and Murray-Smith does seem to be extremely personal and revelatory about that creative process in the palpable intimacy witnessed here. Highsmith was more interested in the “why” of murder, than the “how” of it, and this play thoroughly explores human behaviour and psychology, providing a window through which we discover the manifold logic behind the way we tick, especially in our dark moments. The characters thrive in their morbidity; conversations rarely veer from death and destruction, but the play is not deadly serious. It is often piercingly funny, particularly in the way Highsmith’s eccentricities and nastier qualities are accentuated. More than entertaining, Murray-Smith’s comedy helps with her macabre narratives, making them more convincing and threatening. It is the way light and dark vacillate that makes us lose ourselves, and fall headfirst into this indulgently baroque world of deception and narcissism.
Sarah Goodes’ direction is tense, taut and terrific. The deeply complex text is brought to life with crystal clarity in its narrative and characterisations, yet the astonishing multilayeredness of its themes is retained. It is the kind of play that seems to touch on everything, even though its story is ostensibly about something simpler. The context of a hermitic novelist is far removed from many of our own lives but at no point does Goodes allow us to feel estranged from its themes and ideas. The script’s ambitious structure switches mode constantly within its three single-scene acts, taking cue from Highsmith’s unpredictable and capricious temperament. The direction’s acceding variances in tone and atmosphere are sensitively formed, and the results are edge-of-the-seat exhilarating.
In Switzerland, leading lady Peirse is perfection incarnate. She is at once Maria Callas, Greta Garbo and Bette Davis, bringing to the production a charisma that outweighs the Sydney Opera House, and a storytelling ability that seizes and manipulates our imagination as though reducing us to children hypnotised by a lullaby. Her Highsmith is obnoxious, contemptible, almost evil, yet we are drawn to her helplessly, desperate for her every utterance and gesture. There is a mysterious skill involved in the way Peirse makes each moment of her performance seem majestic, while letting us see textures of subtlety and importantly, authenticity. A real character exists on that stage, but the enormity of the actor’s power is its awe-inspiring double. Many excellent actors grace the stages in the lucky city of Sydney, but it is the splendour on this occasion that causes one to bemoan the ephemerality of the theatrical form.
The role of Ridgeway is equally substantial. The character is half of the story and script, even though he is necessarily subservient. Eamon Farren is a strong actor who tackles the role thoughtfully, and with evident conviction, but he is often eclipsed by Peirse. There is an unfortunate imbalance arising from the difference in levels of experience that is almost inevitable. Pitting an 80 year-old character against a twenty-something, and casting actors with over twenty years’ discrepancy in their respective craft maturation in a two-hander, proves to be more than a little precarious. Our attention resists being split 50/50, and Farren is outclassed and relegated to unofficial supporting actor. Nonetheless, the actor’s accomplishments in creating an interesting personality is significant and so is his contribution to the effectiveness of the plot. The chemistry of the pair is also noteworthy, with an impressive fluency to their dialogic rhythms.
All the action takes place in the living room. Michael Scott-Mitchell based his set design on Highsmith’s final home, suitably bringing to focus the Brutalist environs in which she dwelt. Taking a sharply angled perspective of the house, the stage is shaped like a dagger, reflecting Highsmith’s love of weaponry, and the harshness she had embraced into all aspects of life. Scott-Mitchell’s creation is masculine and perversely beautiful, with a large working fireplace in the centre that provides warmth to the visual aesthetic, but also a menacing sense of impending doom. Lighting is subdued but is central to mood changes and assists in illustrating character transformations. Nick Schlieper’s work is unassuming, but very elegant. Steve Francis’ memorable music compositions between scenes are cinematic and evocative, bringing to mind Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann’s more noir opus.
In Switzerland, Highsmith humorously claims to be neutral, never judging the actions of her characters, content to sit back and observe things unfolding, seemingly on their own accord. She washes her hands of all their sins and misdeeds, almost extricating herself from the part she plays as their sole architect. The show however, bears the fingerprints of all its authors and they should be immensely proud of their artistic marvel. Tom Ripley lives on as a literary landmark, and Joanna Murray-Smith’s play will likely go on to be a considerable part of Australian theatre legacy.