October 27, 2017

Witty two-hander is a duel

by Joanna Murray-Smith
State Theatre Company
Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre
October 25. Tickets: $33- $61. Bookings 131 246 or online.
Duration: 1 hour 40 minutes. No interval.
Until November 5.

“My imagination functions much better,” the American novelist Patricia Highsmith sardonically observed, “when I don’t have to speak to people.” She much preferred to be alone with words. Misanthropic, prejudiced, witheringly intolerant, Highsmith wrote fiction about crime which was much more than generic crime fiction.

Admired by Graham Greene, her novels had the ambition of Dostoyevsky and Camus, and spoke to the darkest recesses of human experience. Alfred Hitchcock turned her first novel, Strangers on a Train, into a film classic and her most famous character, the psychopathic Tom Ripley, is one of the most intriguing and repellent creations in popular fiction.

It is no wonder playwright Joanna Murray-Smith seized on Highsmith’s complex and disturbing life and works for Switzerland, her excellent play about writing and crime, first performed in 2015. Murray-Smith has created a vibrant, multifaceted portrait of the artist as an old woman.

It is 1995, and now a recluse in Locarno, in the Swiss Alps, Highsmith is visited by Edward, a young man representing her New York publisher, who is trying to sign her up for one more book – one last Ripley.

In this new State Theatre production, carefully paced by director Nescha Jelk, Murray-Smith’s engagingly witty two-hander morphs into a larger study of death and the end of imagining. A visit becomes a visitation – and, of course, Ripley is involved.

Ailsa Paterson’s detailed set (warmly lit by Nigel Levings) recreates Highsmith’s modernist alpine hideaway, with her 1956 Olympia typewriter, her cigarettes, bottles of scotch, and fetish for knives and weaponry all on display. Jason Sweeney’s fluttery violin and thrumming cello interludes between scenes also serve the production well.

The performances are captivating. As Edward (and Ripley redux) Matt Crook is both an amusing target for Highsmith’s tirades against youth and contemporary culture, and an artful Riplean tempter, insidiously flattering and probing the author’s fears and insecurities. Crook is a skilled comic actor and his flustered, awkward manner (and impeccable New York accent) heightens the banter which introduces the play.

Much depends on the Highsmith role and the formidable Sandy Gore does not disappoint. In white shirt, slacks and expensive leather shoes, she brilliantly captures Highsmith’s forthright disdain. With a vocal drawl, not unlike the late Gore Vidal, she dispenses her witticisms and jeremiads in a descending cadence of considered contempt and displeasure. It is a mannered delivery, but serves Joanna Murray-Smith’s ranging, digressive text admirably.

Switzerland is a diverting, scintillating duel with words and small daggers. But with Jelk’s expertly managed final scene, the mysteries of the writer and her creation are also poignantly revealed.
“Witty two-hander is a duel”, The Australian, October27, 2017, p.16.

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