The drama of Patricia Highsmith

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, November 7

In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

Orson Welles as Harry Lime in The Third Man

WHEN Sydney Theatre Company artistic director Andrew Upton announced STC’s 2014 program in September last year, he made a particular point at a media briefing of thanking Los Angeles’s Geffen Playhouse, which was allowing STC to give the first performances of a play the Geffen had commissioned – Joanna Murray-Smith’s Switzerland.

Sarah Peirse as Patricia Highsmith. Photo: Brett Boardman

Sarah Peirse as Patricia Highsmith. Photo: Brett Boardman

I don’t know when Murray-Smith was first inspired to write about American novelist Patricia Highsmith (and inspired is precisely the word) but it seems to have been quite a while ago. In her program note to the STC production now running, she thanks, among others, “the late, great Gil Cates from the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles for commissioning this play”. Cates died in October 2011, so Switzerland must have been on Murray-Smith’s slate for more than three years.

This is a long way of saying that Murray-Smith appears to have been nicely ahead of the curve in proposing Highsmith as a dramatic subject: there’s currently a resurgence of interest in the writer and the witty and elegant Switzerland is right in the midst of it.

This year there has been a film adaptation of Highsmith’s The Two Faces of January, starring Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst, as well as Virago’s release of various Highsmith novels as e-books and in paperback. Todd Haynes has finished filming Carol, the Highsmith book originally released in 1952 as The Price of Salt and under a pseudonym, as it deals with a lesbian affair. (It was republished as Carol, under Highsmith’s name, late in the author’s life.) For those who like a neat connection, Carol – it is to be released next year – stars none other than Upton’s wife and former co-artistic director at STC, Cate Blanchett.

Highsmith was born in Texas, lived a great deal of her adult life in France and died in Switzerland in 1995, shortly after her 74th birthday. It’s something of a surprise she hadn’t succumbed earlier. She smoked a couple of dozen Gauloises a day until an operation for lung cancer made her decide to quit, and was an alcoholic who could consistently put away a bottle of spirits over a few days in addition to the beer she enjoyed, apparently from as soon as she rose in the morning. Her food intake was limited in quantity and type. She loved cats, although if her biographer Andrew Wilson has his facts right she cared for them in very odd ways, and she had a thing for snails, not to eat but as pets. She was a great hater and bizarrely mean with money, but must also have been greatly magnetic. Highsmith’s love life, one that occasionally included men, was exceptionally eventful.

Murray-Smith gives a pungent sense of this intriguing personality in what, at first, appears to be an ultra-conventional two-hander about a character whose idiosyncrasies emerge through conversation with a much less colourful secondary figure. Highsmith, nearing the end of her life, is living alone in Switzerland. In Murray-Smith’s imagined scenario, a young man representing her publisher arrives bearing jars of peanut butter (one of Highsmith’s few favoured foods) as a prelude to asking for one more novel featuring the author’s most famous creation, Tom Ripley.

From there, while rigorously maintaining the style and appearance of a naturalistic – even old-fashioned – drama, Switzerland morphs into a psychological thriller and then what Dostoevsky called fantastic realism. It’s audacious, surprising and very apt as Murray-Smith’s play takes on the qualities of Highsmith’s art, in form and atmospherics, and applies them to the writer’s life. (What a gift Highsmith’s last choice of residence was for Murray-Smith: neutral Switzerland, home of the cuckoo clock, the numbered bank account and more nuclear shelters per capita than any other country in the world.)

In an economical 100 minutes, expertly paced by director Sarah Goodes, the multi-layered Switzerland reveals the vulnerabilities of a woman who concealed much about herself from the world (no wonder she had a thing for cats and snails) and felt insufficiently valued in her homeland as it also it burrows beneath the surface with Ripleyesque skill to examine the interconnectedness of writer and subject.

Slouching around in mannish shirts and trousers, Sarah Peirse brilliantly inhabits the defensive, acerbic, cranky Highsmith (the photograph of the author reproduced in the program is incredibly telling) while Eamon Farren’s initially cowed but increasingly smooth and assured Edward is a marvel of transformation. Both fumbled a little with the lapidary text on opening night – just a couple of slips and hesitations – and a few of Murray-Smith’s bon mots about American life and literary figures didn’t get quite the reception they should have, or the reception was muted by the few extra nano-seconds it took for the audience to absorb the meaning. Switzerland therefore wasn’t as immaculately taut as its form demands, although I imagine Peirse and Farren are in top gear now. They are both exceptionally good.

As for the American references, I can hear the Geffen audience hitting its mark precisely – it would be fun to be there.

Switzerland ends December 20 in Sydney. It opens March 3 at the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theatre, Geffen Playhouse. No cast, director or production team has been announced.

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