Mariyon Slany

'Switzerland' explores misanthropic writer Patricia Highsmith's exile in later life

Black Swan State Theatre's Switzerland. Photography by Philip Gostelow.

American writer Patricia Highsmith is most famous for her character, Tom Ripley, partly due to the several films (The Talented Mr RipleyRipley’s Game) that are based around this morally ambiguous man who can kill and then go home to classical music, fine art and haute cuisine – Ripley is a lover of life’s good things.

Highsmith’s ability to splendidly evoke a well-lived life, albeit one based around psychopathic killing, is more than an exploration of the evil in all of us; it speaks to our latent feelings of jealousy and guilt as a substitute for the Ripleys of the world who are getting away with having it all, and without playing by any of society’s rules.  

The emotions that Highsmith conceals with her scathing commentary – disdainful views of much of the population and peculiar habits such as weapon collecting and snail-loving – are not easy to pull off. WA’s Black Swan Theatre has taken on the challenge of Joanne Murray-Smith’s imagining of this writer’s latter years in Switzerland.

Murray-Smith is one of Australia’s most acclaimed playwrights thanks to works such as FuryHonour, Redemption and Pennsylvania Avenue. Among her many awards, she has won the London Theatregoers Choice Award and the Victorian Premier's Literary Award; she was also nominated for the 2006 Miles Franklin Award. Switzerland – set in Highsmith’s home in her later years, when she had retired to Switzerland and was virtually a recluse – won the award for Best New Australian Work at the 2014 Sydney Theatre Awards.

Smashing a bourgeois moral compass, Murray-Smith takes on Highsmith’s view of the world; one that is somewhat difficult to translate to the stage – such as a scene where Highsmith says, ‘Most happy people are people who don’t ask enough questions,’ as she slugs down yet another Scotch and expounds on the virtues of Francis Bacon being locked in a cupboard as something she admires.

The extremes of Highsmith’s life are not especially palatable for a theatre audience, as her life was based on exclusion and being on the edges of society; deliberately not seeking acceptance.

Though she has a long history of awards and experience (including last year’s star turn in Moliere’s Tartuffe) Jenny Davis as Highsmith does not convincingly embody the writer’s misanthropic bitterness. Davis’s inconsistent maintenance of the American accent typifies the ups and downs of her performance. There is a need for more abrasiveness and disgust in this role than Davis generally plays.

However, WAAPA theatre graduate Giuseppe Rotondella is brilliant in his clean cut role as the publisher, Edward Ridgeway. He has come over from America to convince Highsmith to write a Ripley sequel and is desperate to convince her, both for posterity but also his own benefit. The switch in his role towards the end is masterful and this startling turn of events creates a tension that still had some theatre-goers puzzling as to what actually happened. Rotondella’s mannerisms are spot on in both incarnations of his character, and he beguiles with ease, whether he is being subservient or domineering.

Directed by Lawrie Cullen-Tait, there are some uneven aspects, as outlined above. As a two hander, the work could have done with a more engaging set. Designer Bruce McKinven has gone for a contemporary look: all sparse lines and little clutter. The main focus is on the sloping stage that clearly delineates who is most powerful in the dual relationship at any one time by allowing them to look down at the other. Highsmith’s writing does manipulate the reader and the characters manipulate each other, so this symbology of power play is reflective of the original text(s) on which Switzerland is based.

The lighting features much use of grey-brown and cool blues suffusing the plain office walls. Blood red would seem more apt for the relish that the characters take in talking about knives, guns and poisons and whether ‘only one of them is going to be left alive’ or not at the end. At moments the ‘door’ opens and we are given light and stairs to denote the larger capacity of the house beyond what begins to feel like a very boxed-in space on stage. This is slightly alleviated by the uncovering of an impressive array of the guns and knives in Highsmith’s personal collection, vividly lit. This was an almost palpable visual relief compared to the clean lines on stage, perhaps also incarnating the physical reality of all the references to death that the two characters played with.

Sound design by Ash Gibson Greig was somewhat muted. Key penultimate moments felt like they could have done with more signposting, both from the direction and sound point of view.

This fictitious moment in the life of Highsmith brings us into the mind of a writer who favoured stalking and watching from the outside. She wore armour that was never penetrated. As her most famous character becomes Highsmith, typing, smoking and show tune music lingering on – her position in the writerly pantheon of the world is complete.

Rating: 3 ½ stars out of 5

Black Swan State Theatre Company presents
By Joanne Murray-Smith
Directed by Lawrie Cullen-Tait
Composer/Sound Designer: Ash Gibson Greig
Set and Costume Designer: Bruce McKinven
Lighting Designer: Lucy Birkinshaw
Cast: Jenny Davis and Giuseppe Rotondella

Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre, Perth 
19 August – 3 September 2017 
The performance on 1 September will be broadcast live to audiences in regional WA

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Mariyon Slany runs her own communications and art consultancy. Her formal qualifications in Visual Arts, Literature and Communications combine well with her experience in media and her previous work as WA’s Artbank Consultant for her current position as Public Art Consultant.