Highsmith’s writing explores the ugliest recesses of the human mind. Her most famous novels are Strangers on a Train and the series known as the “Ripliad”, in which the charming and amoral anti-hero Tom Ripley manipulates and murders his way to riches.
Notoriously misanthropic, and an alcoholic with racist and anti-semitic views, Highsmith preferred the company of men over women — except in bed — and that of animals over men. She once famously attended a party with a handbag full of snails declaring that by doing so she would be assured of good company.
Unjustly shunned by New York’s chauvinistic literary elite as a writer of potboilers, Highsmith retreated to Switzerland, and it is this final chapter of her life that provides the framework for Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith’s fictional story.
The ailing author (played by Sandy Gore) has her isolation interrupted by the arrival of the apparently guileless Edward Ridgewater (Matt Crook), an enthusiastic young publisher’s assistant from New York who has been charged with the task of persuading her to write one more Ripley novel.
The interior of the writer’s Swiss bunker is accurately rendered by Ailsa Paterson’s set, complete with a portrait of the young writer by Highsmith’s ex-lover Allela Cornell, and her much-photographed writing desk, typewriter, attendant ashtray and coffee mug. Its cosiness lures the unsuspecting audience into a feeling of safety; only the sinister array of the weaponry for which the writer had an obsession, and the slightly odd placement of floor levels, hints at an unsettling denouement.
The play launches into Murray-Smith’s crackling dialogue at a furious pace, its twisted humour raising uneasy laughs.
Gore perfectly embodies Highsmith in her mannish clothes, in turns acerbic, funny, bullying and vulnerable, while Crook deftly manages the demanding transformation from bumbling and naïve to self-possessed and unsettling.
Nescha Jelk’s subtle stage direction, Nigel Levings’ lighting and Jason Sweeney’s score accentuate the ominous shift of power between the two protagonists.
Highsmith’s desk at one end of the stage represents the portal to the world she creates, inhabits and controls; at the other is the space through which Ridgewater appears, an intruder. Highsmith’s attempts to repel him are immediately hostile — funny, too — yet Ridgewater holds his ground, working his way towards her writing space and the play’s shocking twist.
Switzerland will appeal to both Highsmith fans and newcomers to her work. Absorbing and gripping, the interval-free hour and a half whips by.
It so thoroughly inhabits Highsmith’s flawed and complex psyche, so thoroughly brings to life her love for her greatest character, Tom Ripley, that one imagines she might have thoroughly approved of this production — no mean feat. Not to be missed.
Switzerland is playing at the Dunstan Playhouse until November 5.
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