Left – Sarah Peirse. Cover – Sarah Peirse and Eamon Farren. Photos – Brett Boardman
When Edward Ridgeway (Eamon Farren) arrives at the Swiss home of novelist Patricia Highsmith (Sarah Peirse), she wants nothing to do with him. Highsmith, the best-selling author of Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr Ripley has a distaste for other people. She lives alone with her cats and her whiskey, and she’s happy that way. Edward has come from her publishers. They want a new Ripley book and he’s here to make sure she signs the contract.
The ground is uneven from the get-go. Highsmith stalks Edward, stressing his insignificance, his lack of imagination. She refuses to sign, wants him out of her home. But not before he’s delivered the goodies she’s requested: a supply of the shirts and shoes she favours, jars of peanut butter, an antique knife to add to her collection. From the moment Highsmith strokes its blade, we know this knife will figure in what’s to come.
The last emissary from Highsmith’s publisher returned to New York claiming she held a blade to his throat. It’s a claim she dismisses, and one that doesn’t overly trouble Edward. He’s a fan, he knows her work inside out, and he wants her to write a novel that will reassert her brilliance. So she challenges him to come up with what she can’t seem to fathom out – the plot for Ripley’s next murder. It needs to be new, ingenious. If it satisfies her, she’ll sign the contract.
Joanna Murray-Smith’s great skill as a playwright is her sharp, biting dialogue – you always want to hear what her characters have to say – and she uses that skill to excellent effect in Switzerland. She allows the reclusive Highsmith to take acerbic aim at just about everything (and you can almost sense Murray-Smith exorcising a few ghosts of her own).
This is a role that’s meaty and generously written, one that the best actors are going to want to take it on. Sarah Peirse does a fabulous job of it and it’s her performance – robust and intelligent – that anchors this production. Hunched and scowling, Peirse gives us a woman bunkered within an almost impenetrable wall of contempt, but with enough of a chink in the armour – dancing cheerily to show tunes, alert to declarations of her genius – to give Edward a way in.
As Edward, Eamon Farren, has the more difficult trajectory to play. His shift from gawky acolyte to charming and confident young man – someone who is Highsmith’s match – isn’t fully supported by the script, but it’s nonetheless a persuasive performance.
Designer Michael Scott-Mitchell’s set – a spacious, comfortable room hemmed in by low ceiling and thick walls, and windows that give no sense of an outside world, but rather eerily reflect what’s going on within the room – cleverly echoes Highsmith’s psyche. And director Sarah Goodes does a fine job maintaining the momentum of the play.
But if the tension slackens in the second half, it’s more the fault of the script than the direction. In so intently milking Highsmith’s misanthropy for laughs, Murray-Smith doesn’t leave sufficient space for the thriller elements of the play to breathe. The twist, when it comes, fails to convince.
Switzerland is an entertaining, if slightly implausible play. But well worth the price of admission, if only to see Sarah Peirse’s uncompromising performance.
Melbourne Theatre Company presents
by Joanna Murray-Smith
Director Sarah Goodes
Venue: Southbank Theatre, The Sumner
Dates: 17 September – 29 October 2016
Bookings: 03 8688 0800 | mtc.com.au
A Sydney Theatre Company production