A potent and thrilling symbiosis between actress and playwright.

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House

November 7, 2014

The symbiosis between playwright Joanna Murray-Smith and actress Sarah Peirse is potent and thrilling. It was first seen in Sydney in 2013’s Fury (STC, Wharf 1) and it reaches another level in Switzerland – Murray-Smith’s imagining of the last days in the life of Patricia Highsmith.

The play is an alchemical combination of Murray-Smith’s deep, darkly soaring flight of fancy and Peirse’s thoroughly grounded and authentic portrayal of the author (voice coach Charmian Gradwell has helped her conjure up the curious voice of a Texan who also spoke good French and German). The result is an absorbing, uninterrupted 100 minutes whose cunning twists and final turn are worthy of the great writer herself.

With lighting designer Nick Schlieper, set designer Michael Scott-Mitchell has boldly and effectively used the often awkward width of the Drama Theatre stage to re-create the living room of Highsmith’s final Swiss home. Its small windows, set in thick grey walls, seem designed to keep out both the probability of extreme weather and the possibility of human contact or even the natural beauty of its surrounds. At one end is a modest desk where her portable typewriter sits, waiting for writer’s block to pass. In the fireplace is an incongruously hearty log fire; it’s gas powered and therefore bleak rather than cheering.

Above the mantelpiece hangs part of her collection of vintage small arms. When she reluctantly and ungraciously entertains Edward Ridgeway (Eamon Farren), an envoy from her publisher, it is revealed in a series of sharp, amusing exchanges that they both know a lot about choice, antique weaponry.

Born in Fort Worth, Texas in 1921, Highsmith travelled to Europe in 1951 after the publication of her first book, Strangers On A Train. She stayed and eventually moved to Switzerland in 1982 where she died of cancer in Locarno in 1995. Her career of 22 novels and many short stories culminated with the five Ripley novels and – in Murray-Smith’s imagination – it is to persuade a sixth out of her that young Edward presents himself as the starstruck punching bag for her resentment.

Pat is scornful and insulting, sneering at his boyishly confident assertion that he knows her work better than anyone else – including her, he implies. When she resists every plea and blandishment she laughs in his face at his almost tearful admission that he cannot return to New York empty-handed. The last man to do so is still suffering a nervous breakdown.

Directed by Sarah Goodes, the rarely less than excellent Sarah Peirse is brilliant in the role of her career to date. She becomes entrancing and horrifying by turns as the deliberately repellent yet fascinating and mannishly stiff and ageing Highsmith. Likewise Farren, whose unearthly-handsomeness and acting intelligence fashion a deceptive and perfect foil for his idol: yin and yang, black and white, good and evil.

The play is also deceptive. It begins with disarming humour that sucks in the viewer – Highsmith/Ripley fan or not, it doesn’t matter, there are clues along the way to enlighten the uninitiated. And the laughter arises out of Highsmith’s sharp wit on the one hand and the audience’s shock at her unabashed misanthropy and bigotry on the other. Whether these traits were real or more of a protective carapace is not the point of this play which instead slyly and steadily descends into the world that endlessly fascinated Highsmith: the labyrinth of the human mind and its motivations.

What happens in the end is worthy of the never-written sixth Ripley novel and Murray-Smith’s daring in putting words and prose into the mouth of one of literature’s great stylists is rewarded. Switzerland is a marvelous new play and this production is equal to it. Not to be missed.