'Switzerland': Theater Review

Brett Boardman
Eamon Farren and Sarah Peirse in "Switzerland"
An intriguing attempt at revivification

Joanna Murray Smith casts Patricia Highsmith in the thriller she never wrote in this Sydney Theatre Company premiere, heading to Los Angeles' Geffen Playhouse in March

Patricia Highsmith, that doyenne of an immediately recognizable fictional world in which murderers get away with it, seems to be enjoying a moment. This year saw the rather bloodless screen adaptation of The Two Faces of January come and go; next we'll get Todd HaynesCarol, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, based on Highsmith's The Price of Salt, while a film version of The Blunderer is also in the works. Highsmith's popularity is an oddity, if an encouraging one, in a Hollywood where a cynic might expect her fondness for moral equivalence to be anathema.

Switzerland, the new two-hander from Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith, is not so much an adaptation as an act of homage by way of larceny, appropriating Highsmith the real person as a fictional character in one of her own queasy dramas.

Commissioned by the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, where it begins performances March 3, Switzerland is first being staged by the Sydney Theatre Company, where Blanchett served as co-artistic director until last year. Murray-Smith's association with the Geffen dates from the theater's 2010 U.S. premiere of her feminist farce The Female of the Species, starring Annette Bening as another character based on an author, in that case Germaine Greer.

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The play hinges on an irresistible conceit. Highsmith (Sarah Peirse) is living alone in Switzerland and crotchety as hell. A callow rube named Edward Ridgeway (Eamon Farren) arrives on her doorstep, sent by the publishing house to try to convince her to pen another Ripley novel. Murray-Smith has great fun emulating Highsmith’s terse, caustic register as she tears the young man to shreds. Peirse has a gift of a part here — contrarian, bigoted, often very funny — and she nails the elbows-out jaggedness of the character, a Marinetti painting come frighteningly to life.

Edward represents the New York literary scene that Highsmith left behind and loathes, and her disdain for Tom Wolfe, Kurt Vonnegut et al gives Murray-Smith the opportunity for some choice zingers aimed at the male literary establishment. According to Highsmith, it's all white male writers and white male critics indulging in mutual masturbation. Highsmith is particularly galled by Norman Mailer's dismissal of her work as high-class pulp: "Do people call Crime and Punishment a crime novel?"

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As Edward, Farren has the trickier part, mainly because he's so self-consciously a Highsmith type, one whose gaucheness soon gives way to cunning. Though there's no intermission, the one-act play features three clear breaks, in which the characters exit and Nick Schlieper's lights dim. Each time young Edward returns more self-assured and, ominously, better dressed. Farren's features are almost python-like, and as the play progresses, half the fun is in trying to puzzle out exactly who is embodying the classic Highsmith predator and who the dunce.

Director Sarah Goodes' production is aided enormously by the burrow-like set from Michael Scott-Mitchell, modeled after Highsmith's actual Swiss home. A spiral staircase leads down to a living room unaffected by the latter half of the 20th century: a typewriter, a record player, pistols and Confederate swords cover the wall. The space is low but wide, like a submarine crosshatched, or the bottom half of a doll's house. When the two characters are on opposite sides of the stage, the audience has to rotate their heads to take in both of them, like the crowd watching the tennis match in Alfred Hitchcock’s bowdlerized version of Strangers on a Train.

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Switzerland is about the act of imagination, and its costs. To Highsmith, unhappiness and trauma were prerequisites for good work. She tells Edward about Francis Bacon, whose nanny locked him in a cupboard as a small child, and who as an adult worked in an office of roughly the same dimensions. "That's an artist!" she thunders. Whether or not Murray-Smith agrees with her is less clear, and tantalizing, for Switzerland is obviously an act of identification: one writer wrestling with a creation wrestling with her most famous creation of all.

Tom Ripley looms large over the proceedings, and the playwright executes a late twist that makes his presence concrete rather than abstract. It's a neat feat of rug pulling, but doesn't seem fully worked out. The idea that a character outlives its author and assumes a life of its own is uncontroversial and a bit pat, but Murray-Smith takes it even further, forcing a metaphor made too literal for climactic effect.

The playwright delivers a sincere tribute to Highsmith's legacy, but that nobility of purpose also precludes the play from being an authentic simulacrum of the master's voice. Like most attempts to transfer Highsmith to another medium, Switzerland is entertaining, but lacks the bile. 

Cast: Eamon Farren, Sarah Peirse

Director: Sarah Goodes

Playwright: Joanna Murray-Smith

Set and costume designer: Michael Scott-Mitchell

Lighting designer: Nick Schlieper

Music and sound designer: Steve Francis

Presented by Sydney Theatre Company, by special arrangement with Geffen Playhouse, Los Angeles