Highsmith is known primarily for her psychological thrillers, a number of which were adapted for the screen. But as intriguing as her fictional characters may be, the writer herself was just as curious and contradictory as her most famous creation, the con artist Tom Ripley.
In 1952, she wrote The Price of Salt, a lesbian love story with a happy ending – the first of its kind in a genre that tended towards cautionary tales rather than celebratory ones, and which was turned into the acclaimed movie Carol (starring Cate Blanchett). However, Highsmith kept her name off the work, publishing under the nom de plume Claire Morgan, so as to not be pigeonholed as a lesbian fiction writer.
The American author was an avowed Atheist, pro-Palestine, and considered herself to be a liberal, but held abhorrently racist views. She was, if put politely, a curmudgeonly figure in the literary world.
Given Highsmith’s complexity, it’s little wonder that Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith chose her as the subject for Switzerland, a play that takes a fictional look at the last days before her death in 1995.
It’s also little wonder that any actor might jump at the chance to portray the indelible Highsmith.
“It’s a fascinating piece of writing, because it incorporates Patricia Highsmith’s true life … she was such a mercurial woman,” says Sandy Gore, who plays her in the State Theatre Company of SA production of Switzerland, which opens this week.
“I mean, she was vile and racist and a drunk, and with the most wonderful, wonderful intelligence, and the very, very best sense of humour…
“You’d have to be lacking in some kind of sense of awareness to say no to it.”
Murray-Smith’s play sees a publicist from New York visit the semi-reclusive author at her home in Switzerland to convince her to write one more story for the Ripley canon, but, in Highsmith’s own fashion, there is more to the characters than meets the eye.
“I love the fact that she [Murray-Smith has] written a role for a senior actress – she’s written two fabulous roles, one for the young man [played by Matt Crook] as well – and I love the fact that it’s a fantastic whodunit, and it just takes you on this marvellous journey, because she was such a mercurial woman,” Gore says.
In delving into the Highsmith character, Gore has discovered the monumental role that negative feelings can take in shaping an individual.
“She was born in Texas… [and] she moved to New York and spent some time there, but going into elementary school with a Texan twang didn’t make her particularly popular,” she says.
“She found at one point, when she was asked to read a story to the class, she actually found that storytelling gave her a way in, because everyone listened to her.
“It’s a very familiar story – aloneness, loneliness, missed opportunities, disappointments, not being accepted the way you would like to be accepted, and never knowing true love.
“Maybe that drive in her, that need to belong, actually made her a better writer, because she was able to focus completely on what Tom would do, what Tom would want.
“As she said, ‘He was my most admired character, my companion, my muse, why would I want to let go of him?’ He was a best friend.”
Switzerland opens this Friday, October 20, at the Dunstan Playhouse and will play until November 5.
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