Murder She Wrote: Review of STC’s Switzerland
Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995) was an American novelist of psychological thrillers, who is probably best remembered for her adapted novels Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr Ripley. In Joanna Murray-Smith’s new play Switzerland, though, she becomes the central character of her own story.
Highsmith is a caustic, sharp-witted woman who has escaped to the Swiss Alps to enjoy her retirement away from the brash and shallow confines of New York, which she sees as populated by critics and sycophants. She instead prefers the company of animals, owning several cats and a colony of snails. These sexually ambiguous mollusks are a source of fascination for her. This all comes to an end when a young representative from her New York publishers, Edward, arrives at her home with the intention of getting her to sign on to write another novel. Highsmith is resistant to the idea, claiming that she’s done with Ripley. Edward doesn’t take no for an answer though, and his seemingly innocuous character becomes increasingly sinister, setting the stage for a battle of wits and wills. As the two duel it out the plot gradually comes to mirror that of her novels.
Murray-Smith’s writing crackles, and her wit is both cruel and by turns hilarious. At its core, this play becomes Highsmith’s process of coming to terms with her own death. Ruminations of mortality, legacy and murder, as well as the process of writing litter the text. Being a two-hander placed in a single setting, the play does tend to throw a lot of exposition at the audience with limited action. However, Murray-Smith’s characters are fascinating and well rendered, and her writing is tight enough to sustain this over the play’s 100 minute course.
Both performances are first class. Sarah Pierse sparkles in the role of battered crime writer Patricia Highsmith. She is raw, abrasive, and thoroughly broken. Pierse rounds her characterisation with a perfectly eared whiskey accent, and pained gait. She is stiff, and this seeps into her personality. The cynicism is unrelenting, as is her deep-seated resentment for the river of white male publishers that she constantly fights against. She is the archetype of a revolutionary female writer, and yet with Pierse at the helm, we cannot look away.
Highsmith is confronted by young hopeful Edward played by Eamon Farren. Farren is now considered one of Sydney’s leading men, and with good reason. His transformations are textbook; showing versatility and dexterity in mapping the final reveal. Everything from demeanour and stance to the detail of speed of movement is carefully considered. Ultimately, Farren has a difficult task: he is expected to shift substantially over the course of the play, and he does so marvellously.
Together and separately, both actors have a dynamic presence on stage. It is a credit to director Sarah Goodes for weaving the two styles to create flawless chemistry.
Last year Murray-Smith brought us Fury. Switzerland is a complete departure in structure and theme. However, the same keenly observed characters and dazzling writing is still present. Her partnership with the Sydney Theatre Company has no doubt been a fruitful one to date, and one that will hopefully continue into the future.
If you want to learn about Patricia Highsmith and her infamous creation Ripely, Switzerland is playing with the Sydney Theatre Company until the 20th of December. For more information see: