Friday night at the Drill Hall Theatre in Mullumbimby, and I am about to bear witness to “the second production in the Drill Hall Theatre Company’s all-Australian 2021 season.” I love an “all-Australian season” – almost a guarantee of quality theatre. Joanna Murray-Smith’s Switzerland lays before us and I have no idea what I am in for. My sister lives in Switzerland, has lived there for many years, so I know a thing or two about well-timed and chocolate-coated treats, however, nothing in the Swiss cliche repertoire prepared me for Murray-Smith’s take on “the grande dame of best-selling crime literature, Patricia Highsmith”. Her threat at the go-get, “torture you with intravenous Bircher muesli” did not fall on deaf ears.

The set is minimal and succinct – the actors are at opposite ends of the spectrum, in age and experience. There is no space to hide: they depend on each other and with such a ‘wordsome’ work, with character development and portrayal pivotal to the plot, there is no room for rest. This fast-moving and excruciatingly tight performance leaves only room for the viewer – the actors have us in the palm of their hands and play us with every word and look they can muster. Between the two actors, through the course of the evening’s performance, there are many such looks. Audience gobsmacked!

Liz Chance (accomplished actor of stage, screen and universe) plays the famous writer, Patricia Highsmith, as a hard-drinking homophobic racist with an eccentric lesbian flair, sporting a mouth and wit that could rip a large Toblerone to bits before taking it out of the box. Charlie Burton, emerging and rising star (watch this space!) embodies the character of Mr Edward Ridgeway, and meets Highsmith toe-to-toe in the wicked dance that ensues, tempting each other with words and testing their individual mettle – old and young minds in a battle of wits. Charlie, so young and already so commanding (the ‘eating of the brekky’ scene sublime!) convincingly develops the character of Ridgeway, morphing before our very eyes.  

It is a skewed symbiosis that unravels before the audience as the interaction between such strong characters carries us all on their treacherous verbal ride, the banter between the two protagonists is unyielding. “Do I have the right to be confident… I don’t think I’m deluded”, with retort, “…that’s because you ARE deluded…” and “transgression – what a wonderful word.” 

Highsmith taunting Ridgeway with his past, his future and his sexuality, “do you have a sexual preference or are you a snail…” and admitting, “I’m ugly at the heart but more interesting than rocks.”

A flawless performance by both actors, fighting for top dog status – “Do you realise you might not get out of here alive?” asks Highsmith. “That excites me more than it worries me,” replies Ridgeway.  

Now I know, as a reviewer, I should be outlining some of the story line, but honestly, I don’t want to spoil the magic that this performance offers. “You’ve been hiding your light…”; “…well you’re a giant bushel…” and Highsmith’s overall hate for so many “dead white American males” in the publishing industry (“Norman Mailer can go fuck himself”). Ah yes, a perfect vehicle for just one more Ripley adventure.

Accolades must also go to Toni Scanlan (a noted actor in her own right) for directing this fast-paced and breathless brilliance. Well done to all concerned (without the team of toilers, where would live theatre be, eh?). Standing ovations to Liz Chance (always a winner) and show-stopper new-man-on-the-block Charlie Burton. I will be glad to say, “I knew him when…” as Charlie smiles that knowing smile, receiving his first Oscar! 

“Nobody gets out alive” – how you tell YOUR story is what matters. Now that’s exciting!   

Event details

Drill Hall Theatre Company presents
Switzerland
by Joanna Murray-Smith 

Director Toni Scanlan

Venue: Drill Hall Theatre | 4 Jubilee Avenue Mullumbimby NSW
Dates: 18 June – 4 July 2021
Bookings: www.drillhalltheatre.org.au

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