There is a low hum of people getting to their seats, laughing, settling, catching up with family and friends – suddenly the theatre is plunged into darkness. For several seconds there is a palpable vacuum of noise and light. This is preface of what is to come; a play that is dark and populated by people with voids in their lives. Welcome to Switzerland.
Penned by Joanna Murray-Smith, the story unfolds over a couple of days in the life of writer Patricia Highsmith (played by QTC veteran Andrea Moor). Highsmith is famed for her dark psychological thrillers, particularly The Talented Mr. Ripley and her other four books chronicling the horrendous deeds of gentleman killer Tom Ripley. However, sick of a lack of recognition within literary circles, she has long abandoned Ripley for a secluded hideaway in Switzerland, far from her critics. Imagine her consternation when novice publishing house representative, Edward Ridgeway, arrives on her doorstep, determined to convince her to pen a final Ripley to reestablish her reputation and, (let’s be honest) help his nebulous career. What ensues is a gripping play for power and control, worthy of Highsmith’s pen.
Switzerland paints an unflattering portrait of Highsmith as misanthropic, alcoholic, racist, and Anti-Semitic (Wikipedia reveals all this to be true). Even in the hands of Andrea Moor, she comes across as almost a caricature of the cynical writer (think Hemmingway and Dostoyevsky). Certainly, Murray-Smith has tried to give her depth but when it is revealed that she enjoys musical theatre tunes (the bright antithesis of her dour view of the world), it seems an obvious device to make her ‘nuanced’ (I could almost hear my creative writing lecturer saying ‘Give your characters unexpected quirks!’).
To be frank, the ‘disturbed-past-inspires-writer’ narrative thread is tired and didn’t interest or surprise me much- but I did love Matthew Backer’s Edward Ridgeway. He begins as an interesting blend of incredibly meek (swear words seem foreign emanating from his mouth) and overly confident in his persuasive abilities. Gradually, over the course of a remarkable and nuanced performance, he transforms into something entirely unrecognisable. In fact, both characters challenge each other to constantly reveal more and become more true to themselves- and, as Highsmith remarks, when you put two people in a room and they are truly themselves, only one will get out.
Director Paige Rattray has evoked a menacing atmosphere throughout this play. This is created by Steve Toulmin’s filmic sound design, Ben Hughes’ shadowy lighting and Anthony Spenaze’s detailed design. The set is modeled on Highsmith’s real Swiss home, yet tonally cold and subdued to reflect the mood of the play. Everything is in its place and the swords and guns mounted on the wall remain a constant threat of violence. The sloping roof of the set, as well as the smell of Highsmith’s incessant smoking, produce a cloistered and sinister atmosphere. All these production elements combine to support the foreshadowing and sharp dialogue embedded throughout Murray-Smith’s razor script.
Switzerland reminded me of an exhibition I saw in Naples years ago. There were white rooms coming off a small courtyard. In one room there was a pool of blood, with flies buzzing around it. Highsmith is the fly, Ridgeway is the white room, and you’ll have to see the play to find out who the blood is. This exhibition turned out to be the famed exhibition of artist provocateur, Damien Hirst- best known for his gory installations of sliced up animals in glass cases. Indeed, this play was rather like walking amongst those pieces of animal. Murray-Smith has skillfully dissected the relationship of author to fans, of author to their own work, and of author to ‘literature’. While Switzerland is not as surprising and chilling as anticipated, it engagingly raises questions like ‘what is literature, as opposed to writing?’ and ‘what will you be remembered for?’ I can’t say much more without giving away spoilers, except perhaps ‘Go see it!’ Its ambiguous ending has left me theorising for days, and I’d like some company.
Switzerland is now playing at the Queensland Theatre Company’s Bille Brown Studio until June 26, with an Auslan Sign Language Interpreted performance on June 16, and ‘A Night with the Artists’ talk afterwards on June 2 and June 16.