Queensland Theatre Company
Bille Brown Studio
May 20 – June 26 2016
Reviewed by Xanthe Coward
“She was a mean, hard, cruel, unlovable, unloving person…”
– Otto Penzler
“Writing is a way of controlling experience.”
– Joanna Murray-Smith
“I’m going to enjoy what I’ve got as long as it lasts.”
– Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley
Patricia Highsmith was a difficult woman.
In Joanna Murray-Smith’s brilliant slow-burning two-hander, renowned US crime writer and recluse, Patricia Highsmith, meets her publishing company’s earnest rep, Edward Ridgeway, in a fictional encounter that demands of her a final Ripley novel to put her back on the bestseller list. Ridgeway won’t leave until the contract is signed and the two grapple with power, perception, deception and wit, and drink beers before breakfast (Highsmith hated food) before a sly twist turns the situation on its head.
Steve Toulmin’s creeping cinematic score and Ben Hughes’ moody lighting contribute to the feeling of isolation in Highsmith’s haven near Locarno, Switzerland, where she lived for the last thirty years of her life. The play takes place during the last three days of her life. Despite warm accents in the weapons on display, the soft furnishings and timber pieces (Highsmith had enormous hands and feet, and proudly carved some of her furniture herself), Anthony Spinaze’s design, incorporating cold whites and steely blues, complete with raked ceiling and false proscenium, creates an uncomfortable, open space for Highsmith’s unwelcome visitor, and for us too. Tension seeps into the room with the shadows that stretch across the floor, moonlight leaking in, sneaking in, from beyond authentic French doors. We’re flies on the wall, keeping a safe distance from the intricate web being woven, knowing there is something awful to come, knowing the end will be dire.
When the French doors are thrown open to reveal the contrasting darkness outside, the mood and pace of the piece is dramatically altered. A moment suspended in time sees Highsmith here, moonstruck, moving to music (although we can’t be sure if she’s hearing what we’re hearing or something else entirely), oblivious to everything but her innermost thoughts, having dowsed the rest of her soul and her insecurities with Johnny Walker Red.
Andrea Moor has stepped into Highsmith’s loafers and into this difficult woman’s head, embodying the imagined real-life character and all her complexities. She’s witty and impatient and caustic, rising like a snake in the face of her antagonist, ready to strike, but often taking her time to do so while she sizes up the opposition, considering perhaps, with which weapon she’ll finish him off. Highsmith meets her intellectual match in Ridgeway and Moor meets her on-stage equal in Matthew Backer. In every aspect of his communication Backer encapsulates the initial timidity and gradually gained prowess of a ruthlessly ambitious admirer. He needs few words to make his position known.
It’s thrilling to see two accomplished actors simply acting. Having said that, the greatest compliment we can pay the actors is to not have seen their acting; to know that the work has been done and not see them doing it, only the effects of it, and that is the case here. Murray-Smith’s complex characters are perfectly realised by Moor and Backer, under the watchful eye of Director, Paige Rattray. Deftly fashioned suspense, created by Rattray’s superb manipulation of the text, timing, design features and plot twists, builds a little like the dark, lilting, recurring Norma Desmond theme of Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard. Toulmin’s score balances this mysterious and sombre mood with interludes of Hitchcock style high stakes, and to further elevate the mood in that weirdly comically nightmarish horror movie way, we hear the innocent, joyful, slightly absurd strains of South Pacific’s Happy Talk.
The end is not altogether unpredictable but it comes as a shock nevertheless. We’re drawn toward unimaginable horror; the writer’s reality, the inevitable, the loss of control. The actual end.
Switzerland is compelling and richly rewarding. It’s darkly funny, provocative and ultimately terrifying. It’s highly accomplished humble theatre; the strongest we’ve seen from within QTC’s walls this year.
Production pics by Rob Maccoll
Want to learn more about Patricia Highsmith?
Read THE TALENTED MISS HIGHSMITH: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith by Joan Schenkar.