Force Majeure: You Animal, You

Sydney Festival, Carriageworks, January 6

Heather Mitchell is one of the great treasures of the Australian stage and any chance to see her must be grabbed eagerly, as proved to be the case even in a work as unsteady as Force Majeure’s You Animal, You. Under its founder and former artistic director Kate Champion, Force Majeure created a body of dance-theatre work that combined movement with text and often included actors alongside dancers. Mitchell has collaborated with Force Majeure before and is a riveting presence in You Animal, You, directed by Champion’s successor Danielle Micich (and including text written by Mitchell).

Heather Mitchell Solo Confetti - credit Brett Boardman

Heather Mitchell in You Animal, You. Photo: Brett Boardman

You Animal, You looked marvellous and was performed with passionate intensity. Its effects, though, came from a scatter of individual moments. A coherent whole failed to emerge.

The work, choreographed by Micich and the performers, put forward the not entirely novel proposition that we hide the primal urges that drive our true selves. Strip away the shield and we will be revealed and possibly freed. To that end Mitchell commanded a rag-tag band of two women and two men who seemed to be her slaves, up to a point. Dressed in a long sequined gown that had seen better days she shouted directives through a megaphone, sometimes sitting in judgment from a vertiginously high seat that could be wheeled about the space.

The audience was seated arena-style in two rows of seats ranged around a long, wide oval. Bay 20 at Carriageworks is large and the spare design made it seem even more so. The top-tier team of Michael Hankin (set and costumes), Damien Cooper (lights) and Kelly Ryall (score) created a chilly dystopian environment that nevertheless had a certain elegance and grandeur.

Lauren Langlois and Ghenoa Gela - credit Brett Boardman

Lauren Langlois and Ghenoa Gela. Photo: Brett Boardman

Mitchell was perhaps a distant cousin of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome’s Aunty Entity, her glamour somewhat faded but her resolve firm. When she told two people to get into the centre ring and fight they did it without hesitation. When she barked the order “let’s dance”, everyone complied. But to what end? The stage picture was always vibrant and visually appealing but its meaning elusive, other than the symbolism of the amphitheatre as a place of conflict and the huge plastic bag used early and late in the piece as an obvious stand-in for the womb.

The vague unanimity of the first part of the piece fractured into fragments of memory and individual dances but nothing really stuck. There were solos for each of the four dancers in the cast – Harrison Elliott, Ghenoa Gela, Raghav Handa and Lauren Langlois – and sections in which language predominated. Langlois had a stream-of-consciousness monologue that drew on synaesthesia; Mitchell told a fable about the food chain and spoke movingly about the intimacy and pain of motherhood; Elliott relived the moment of birth; Handa spoke about breath; Gela sought refuge among audience members and then very sweetly thanked them.

Each performer had distinctive personal and movement qualities that made them eloquently individual and therefore worthy of close attention. You wanted to know more about Gela, who greeted people warmly as they filed into the space, and Elliott, who slowed time with a naked dance of evolution from flailing baby to dignified adult. Touchingly, you could see that Mitchell was a non-dancer among dancers (you could also see her knee and ankle braces; dance is a tough master). She moved expressively though, losing herself in that special place that civilians have when dancing.

You Animal, You had a very brief premiere season at the Sydney Festival and there are no further dates listed for performance at this stage. Despite being devised with the assistance of a dramaturg, director Sarah Goodes, You Animal, You doesn’t feel fully developed, which is possibly why it ran only about 55 minutes rather than the advertised and presumably planned 75 minutes.

About last week … April 16-22

Last week’s theatre was all about men in extremis, or at least it turned out that way for me. Not an uncommon situation in our theatres, you might say, although now there is increasing awareness that we need to see a wider range of experience on Australian stages. (Hello lobby group Women in Theatre and Screen! More power to your elbow.) King Charles III (the Almeida Theatre production presented by Sydney Theatre Company) fell into last week simply because I hadn’t had the chance to see it earlier in the season but it made an interesting companion to STC’s Disgraced and the new one-man chamber piece Lake Disappointment.

King Charles III begins with mourning for Queen Elizabeth II. At long last Charles is king, although not yet crowned. From his many decades as king in waiting he knows exactly what the role entails, and yet from the first moments of his rule he is troubled by the implications. Is he to have no real authority at all? And if that is so, what meaning does his life have?


Robert Powell as Charles, Ben Righton as William and Jennifer Bryden as Kate. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

Mike Bartlett’s audacious play overlays this contemporary dilemma with Shakespearean structure, style and themes in a way that is both illuminating and often very funny. As the constitutional crisis unfolds there are shades of Macbeth, Hamlet, Henry IV and King Lear and an appropriately Shakespearean mix of tragedy and comedy. Bartlett explores an intriguing political conflict with potentially explosive fallout as well as giving a trenchant view of family dynamics of a particularly complicated kind.

I first saw the play in London in 2014 from a bench seat in the small, vertiginous upper level at the Almeida, which has a cosy 325 seats and an enticingly intimate atmosphere. That was a substantially different experience from seeing it at Sydney’s Roslyn Packer Theatre, which has nearly 900 seats and a different layout and character. Obviously a very different audience too, although at the matinee I attended it was a highly engaged one. There was undoubtedly more laughter in Sydney, although Bartlett’s text frequently encourages it and this audience’s response was rarely gratuitous. (There were grumblings after opening night of much inappropriate hilarity.)

It was always going to be hard for Robert Powell, the Charles in this excellent touring cast, to erase memories of Tim Piggott-Smith, who originated the role. Powell’s Charles was less comprehending of what his actions presaged; Piggott-Smith’s struggle was titanic. Even so, Powell’s downfall was deeply moving. I was thrilled to be able to see his extraordinary play again.

That was Wednesday afternoon; in the evening Luke Mullins and Lachlan Philpott’s Lake Disappointment received its premiere at Carriageworks. Mullins is the sole performer, an unnamed man with a precarious grip on reality. When we first see him he is talking to us as he performs the menial but necessary tasks that fall to the body double of a big movie star – the second-unit stuff like holding a cup, picking up a briefcase, hands on a car wheel, that sort of thing. Or perhaps he’s telling us after the event, as he remembers it. It doesn’t matter. The man is an empty shell who happens to have a similar shape to the actor he serves, Kane, and to whom he has attached his identity, such as it is.

Luke Mullins. James Brown

Luke Mullins in Lake Disappointment. Photo: James Brown

Mullins is exceptional in his ability to make blankness and banality intriguing and the man’s disintegration moving. Even so, the elegant production, with direction by Janice Muller and design by Michael Hankin, ultimately feels almost too fragile. The play, like the man, evaporates.

Disgraced is excellently staged, beautifully performed and terrifically well-directed theatre that had the first-night audience happily discussing its incendiary themes. It’s also one of those highly conventional plays of serious intent that wins prizes (the Pulitzer) and gets a run on Broadway. Disgraced’s climactic arguments are explored at a dinner party and have exactly the well-rehearsed, incredibly articulate quality inherent in this set-up.

Still. The issues canvassed by playwright Ayad Akhtar are pertinent. Amir’s parents were born in India, he says, just before it became Pakistan. Not that that’s going to reassure anyone in these troublous times. Amir is a high-flying lawyer who is far from being attached to his Muslim heritage. His artist wife Emily, however, finds beauty and grace in Islamic art. Emily’s dealer, Isaac is Jewish and his wife, Jory, is African-American and an incredibly pragmatic and ambitious lawyer who works at the same firm as Amir. Starting positions everyone. A favour for his wife and his nephew, reluctantly entered into, throws Amir into a head-on collision with his heritage and the way he lives and feels. Yes, you can see the points being crossed off in the script but Disgraced does have legitimate points to make.

Clearly there was a lot of male angst in the theatre last week, but it was cheering to see excellent women directors at work in Sarah Goodes (Disgraced) and Lake Disappointment’s Muller. The week before Noel Coward’s Hay Fever, for STC, not only featured one of comedy’s cracking leading roles for a woman, delivered sensationally well by Heather Mitchell (see my review below), but was directed in rollicking fashion by Imara Savage. See, you only have to ask them …

Looking at another aspect of diversity in the theatre, it was salutary to read the biography of the exceptionally fine Sachin Joab, who has the leading role in Disgraced. The Melbourne-born actor’s theatre credits before this? None, or at least none that he lists here or on his website, although he mentions Stanley Kowalski and Richard III. From his training days perhaps. Why haven’t we seen him before?

Joab’s background includes a stint in Neighbours, which has proved one of Australia’s greatest acting nurseries (I give you Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, the Hemsworth brothers, Margo Robbie and so on and so forth) so his credentials are impeccable. Let me put it this way: some Sydney casting directors seem to fish in an unfairly small pool.


Mongrel Mouth’s The Bee and the Tree with Dianne Kay as Queen B and Moreblessing Maturure as Bette

Finally to another kind of extremis – environmental degradation – and a theatre company with a strong commitment to diversity. The Bee and the Tree is the first children’s show from Sydney company Mongrel Mouth, founded in 2014 to present site-specific, socio-political theatre. The Bee and the Tree asked its audience of very young children to help save a dying tree, the last one in existence. A difficult-to-understand song made for a slightly puzzling start but once the action got underway the children took part willingly and, by the end, with much gusto, showering the grey, drooping tree with coloured petals to bring it back to life. Director Duncan Maurice’s costume designs – Mongrel Mouth champions recycling – were all winners and included a gold-encased Sun, large drooping tree, metamorphosing Grub and, best of all, Bette the Bee, played with much charm by co-writer Moreblessing Matarure.

In which I fail to stop my list at 10

THIS year I saw more than 200 performances and, over the past week or so, have written about the people, plays, operas, dance works and musicals that spoke to me most strongly. Now I cull the list to 14 – just because that’s how it turned out – and a supplementary, the last being something I haven’t previously mentioned.

There’s also the one that got away. And one that almost got away.

What struck me most about 2014 was how unlike 2013 it was. Last year there were plenty of kapow! events on stage – among them Opera Australia’s Ring cycle, Belvoir’s Angels in America, The Australian Ballet’s Cinderella, Melbourne Festival’s Life and Times from Nature Theatre of Oklahoma, Sydney Theatre Company’s Waiting for Godot, the Berliner Ensemble at the Perth Festival with The Threepenny Opera, Paris Opera Ballet’s Giselle in Sydney – while this year the pleasures tended to be on a smaller scale.

But while there may have been a shortage of big-bang events there were movements afoot of great moment, chief among them more visibility for women playwrights and directors and more indigenous and queer stories taken out of little theatres and put into big ones. These movements didn’t magically appear this year but they did get traction and the texture of our theatre is more interesting and relevant because of them.

My earlier lists were presented in alphabetical order. Not here. I start at the top and work down, although I know that tomorrow I’d probably shuffle a few things around. The non-traditional number can be put down to the multi-art form nature of the list.


Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography (Declan Greene, directed by Lee Lewis), Griffin Theatre Company and Perth Theatre Company

Madama Butterfly (Puccini, directed by Alex Ollé, La Fura dels Baus), Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour

Iphigénie en Tauride (Gluck, directed by Lindy Hume), Pinchgut Opera

Trisha Brown: From All Angles (Trisha Brown), Melbourne Festival

Twelfth Night (Shakespeare, directed by Tim Carroll), Shakespeare’s Globe, New York

Three Masterpieces (Twyla Tharp, Alexei Ratmansky, Jerome Robbins), American Ballet Theatre at Queensland Performing Arts Centre

The Glass Menagerie (Tennessee Williams, directed by John Tiffany, movement by Steven Hoggett), American Repertory Theater, New York

King Charles III (Mike Bartlett, directed by Rupert Goold), Almeida Theatre, London

Henry V (Shakespeare, directed by Damien Ryan), Bell Shakespeare Company, Canberra

Pete the Sheep (adapted for the stage by Eva Di Cesare, Tim McGarry and Sandra Eldridge from the book by Jackie French & Bruce Whatley, directed by Jonathan Biggins, composer/lyricist Phil Scott), Monkey Baa Theatre

A Christmas Carol (adapted by Benedict Hardie & Anne-Louise Sarks from the novel by Charles Dickens, directed by Sarks), Belvoir

The Drowsy Chaperone (music by Lisa Lambert & Greg Morrison, lyrics by Bob Martin & Don McKellar, directed by Jay James-Moody), Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre in association with Hayes Theatre Co

Switzerland (Joanna Murray-Smith, directed by Sarah Goodes), Sydney Theatre Company

Keep Everything (Antony Hamilton), Chunky Move

The supplementary event:

Limbo (Strut & Fret, Underbelly Productions), Sydney Festival. This circus-cabaret didn’t fit into any of my categories so it bobs up from out of left field, which is entirely appropriate for such an outrageously sexy, something-for-everyone show. It was one of the most wildly enjoyable experiences of my quite lengthy viewing career so I went twice during the 2014 Sydney Festival and I’m going again – possibly twice – when Limbo returns to the festival next month.

The one that got away:

Roman Tragedies (Shakespeare, directed by Ivo van Hove) Adelaide Festival. Now this would have been the year’s biggie, had I been able to get to Adelaide. Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s marathon performance of Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra was by all reports life-changing. I believe it, and missing it will remain one of the great regrets of my theatre-going life.

The one that almost got away:

Skylight (David Hare, directed by Stephen Daldry). My London trip ended a day before previews started for Skylight, Hare’s ravishing play in which the political becomes very personal indeed. It was written nearly 20 years ago and its arguments resound ever more loudly today. Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan were starring. Desolation. Until National Theatre Live came to the rescue in October. Bliss.

A baker’s dozen: 2014 theatre in review

OF the more than 200 shows I saw last year, about a third were plays. Dance, opera, musical theatre and cabaret make up the rest. Unfortunately symphonic and chamber music featured very lightly. Can’t do everything, which is why my theatre viewing in Sydney had many gaps, although I don’t believe I missed anything that would make my list. I hate that I see very little theatre in other cities. Would I have adored to see Miriam Margolyes in I’ll Eat You Last at Melbourne Theatre Company? Yes I would. I just couldn’t find a suitable date (and would, anyway, have had to throw myself on the mercy of MTC supremo Brett Sheehy to get in the house, so scarce were the tickets).

I went to Brisbane specifically to see two productions – the Michael Attenborough-directed Macbeth for Queensland Theatre Company and the La Boite-MTC production of Mike Bartlett’s Cock, which I had seen in New York last year. I didn’t care for the Macbeth, which I found somewhat like a drama class, but it did boffo business for QTC and was a more plausible production than Sydney Theatre Company’s “let’s turn the auditorium around” staging. Cock – a provocative and incredibly infuriating, even irritating, play – was undermined for me by its design of a field of soft pillows that were thrown around. One thing this play is not is soft.

I went to this year’s Melbourne Festival primarily to see the Trisha Brown retrospective but thanks to a Thursday matinee was able to see Lachlan Philpott’s The Trouble with Harry, staged by MKA: Theatre of New Writing. I liked it very much, although it doesn’t make my list. Something else I enjoyed greatly was MTC’s Rupert (also not on the list), shortly finishing a commercial season in Sydney. Well, the phrase “commercial season” is close to being an oxymoron when it comes to Sydney and what is quaintly called the straight theatre. There are few theatres, fewer of the right size, and the ones that are available are either hogged by return seasons of big musicals or, like the Theatre Royal, hovering uncertainly on the edge of redevelopment.

I saw many things in New York and London, and will talk about them tomorrow in my International list. There were a couple of beauties, including a superlative production of Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information. I’ll be fascinated to see how Melbourne’s Malthouse copes with its complexities when it puts on its own production next year. First task: get a brilliantly accomplished, totally unflappable stage manager. But more on that tomorrow.

I’m going slightly off-piste here, but I loathe the system, now used virtually everywhere, of giving productions star ratings, as if the piece of theatre were a refrigerator either superbly or deficiently energy-efficient. If plentifully bestowed, stars are a boon to theatre managements as they tout their shows but they reduce the critic to another cog in the publicity machine. They say to the reader – always described as time-poor – don’t bother to absorb the nuances of the discussion; just count the stars and see them twinkle in the advertisements.

My list cannot be described as the “best” plays I saw in 2014. “Best” is a meaningless term. What can be said is that a piece of theatre touched one’s heart, soul and mind more powerfully and lastingly than did others. This is a very personal matter, which is why opinions can differ so greatly. Even in what might think are matters of execution – the appropriateness of a set design, say, or the technical skills of a performer or director – there can be widely divergent views. You should hear the discussions our group has when deciding the finalists and winners of the Sydney Theatre Awards (results announced on January 19).

I love a cracking production of a classic – last year’s Sydney Theatre Company Waiting for Godot, for instance – but am most deeply moved by work that expands and challenges what we think we know about our society. Theatre audiences are overwhelmingly white and comfortably off, but you have only to get on a train to Parramatta to see an infinitely more diverse Australia. And yes, there were plays this year that reflected that.

There are things on my list that didn’t get an incredibly flash production but their virtues shone through. One or two could use a few more drafts. I’ve included three non-Australian works that were graced with exceptional performances.

And one thing I noticed. There are loads of women writers and directors. This was not in any way planned but perhaps points to a breakthrough in which, you know, good people get to do good things. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Finally, there’s nothing more artificial than a list of 10. Yes, we have 10 fingers and 10 toes, so we like that number. Here it has no purpose.

Thirteen plays I loved in 2014, in the order in which I saw them:

Black Diggers, by Tom Wright. Queensland Theatre Company and Sydney Festival (January)

Indigenous Australians signed up for World War I duty in the expectation they would find justice and acceptance on their return. How wrong they were. The rollicking theatriciality and fierce humour were uplifting; the story itself heartbreaking. It was a bit rough and ready on its premiere but who cares? In the centenary year of the declaration of war, it was outstandingly relevant. Wesley Enoch directed.

Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, Back to Back Theatre at Carriageworks (March)

At last Sydney got to see this potent, much-travelled work. The swastika was once a sacred Hindu symbol and the god Ganesh wants to wrest it from the Nazis. At the heart of the matter are questions of who has power and who has the right to tell certain stories, overlain with the certain knowledge that in Hitler’s world the men enacting this play would have faced extinction. It was hold-your-breath, edge-of-the-seat theatre. Bruce Gladwin directed.

Jump for Jordan, by Donna Abela, Griffin Theatre Company (March)

This is such an Australian story. A woman born here of Jordanian parents is both a typical Aussie and someone who has to negotiate the treacherous territory between her parents’ world and her own. Abela’s play energetically dashes between realism, farce and surrealism, but most of all it captures so poignantly the pain migrants must face of leaving behind the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and customs that we call home. It had a terrific cast, in which Doris Younane, as the Jordanian-born mother, was very, very fine. Great set by Pip Runciman too, in which sand spilled into the living room of a suburban Sydney home. Iain Sinclair directed.

Pete the Sheep, based on the picture book by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley, adapted for the stage by Eva Di Cesare, Tim McGarry and Sandra Eldridge. Monkey Baa Theatre Company (April)

Perfect. Just perfect. Pete is a sheep-sheep in a world that reckons there’s only a place for sheep dogs. Pete and his owner beg to differ and they prevail triumphantly. Silly songs, an important lesson in diversity, and fantastic fun for the kids. And for me. Directed by Jonathan Biggins with songs by Phillip Scott.

His Mother’s Voice, by Justin Fleming. bAKEHOUSE Theatre Company at ATYP (May)

His Mother’s Voice could do with some reworking but its subject is entrancing. The play is set mainly in Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath and partly in Canberra, moving between time and place. A mother teaches her son the piano despite the risk, and then the reality, of being persecuted for being bourgeois. For Yang Jia, who was played with understated grace and gleaming intelligence by Renee Lim, music is a universal language. The Chinese apparatchiks who harry her see Western music as the enemy of Chinese music; she sees the two as complementary. When her piano is destroyed Yang Lia finds another, incredibly touching, way of continuing her son’s education in the greats of Western classical music. The politics of the Cultural Revolution collide with international politics, and if at times some of the arguments on the Western side seem a little stilted, Fleming’s portrayal of the contradictions acceptable – necessary? – in Chinese thinking is fascinating. Suzanne Miller directed.

Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography, by Declan Greene. Griffin Theatre Company and Perth Theatre Company (May)

The title is misleading in one respect because the play is not at all about pornography. But in its expression – so caressing in cadence and so ugly in import – the name brilliantly captures the bleak oppositions that drive Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography. There have never been so many ways to communicate and so little connection. Never so many goodies to fill the home to overflowing yet so much emptiness. Never so much stimulation available at the tap of a keyboard and such a paucity of genuine satisfaction. This epidemic of unfulfilled desire and coruscating loneliness is dissected with laser accuracy. A man and a woman, both unnamed, meet via a dating site. He is married and obsessively into pornography, she is a nurse with an out-of-control shopping habit. Both have a core of self-loathing covered with a thin layer of coping. He is the greater fantasist and she the more self-aware but they’re both in deep, deep trouble. Steve Rodgers and Andrea Gibbs were devastatingly good. Lee Lewis directed.

Henry V, Bell Shakespeare Company (June)

IN an air raid shelter during the Blitz in London, some young people delve into bookshelves and pull out Shakespeare. Their stage is a room with a blackboard and some rackety shelves, their costumes nothing more than what they can put over their school uniforms. As sirens blare and bombs fall, they put on a play about war. There could be few productions of Henry V scrappier, less heroic or more affecting than this. Essentially a bunch of kids in a confined space put on accents and lark about, yet the simplicity and intimacy pierce the heart as surely as King Henry’s archers at Agincourt routed the French. Director Damien Ryan sees nothing worth exalting in Henry’s pursuit of conquest. He sees the damage and the never-ending trail of misery. Inspired and inspirational.

Kryptonite, by Sue Smith. Sydney Theatre Company and State Theatre Company of South Australia (September)

Sue Smith’s beautifully named Kryptonite throws together politics, sex, international business and race. That combo would sap anyone of their strength. Lian and Dylan meet at university. She is Chinese and scrambling to survive in a system that lets her study here but not earn enough money to keep herself. He’s a laidback Australian with a passion for surfing. They make a connection that, over the next 25 years, waxes, wanes and is buffeted by external forces. The massacre at Tiananmen Square is one of them; the rise of Australian business connections with China is another. I found the part for Dylan (Tim Walter) a little underwritten, but Ursula Mills as Lian was stunning. I’d love to see it again. Geordie Brookman directed.

Children of the Sun, by Maxim Gorky, adapted by Andrew Upton. Sydney Theatre Company (September)

I found this so poignant. A well-meaning bourgeois Russian family fails to see revolution brewing all around them. Well, one of them can but no one takes any notice. There isn’t any malice in their lack of understanding about the society in which they live but that won’t help them in the end. I think we can all see a lesson there. Jacqueline McKenzie and Justine Clarke made me cry. Kip Williams directed.

Howie the Rookie, by Mark O’Rowe. Red Line Productions in association with Strange Duck Productions and Sydney Independent Theatre Company, Old Fitzroy (October)

This was theatre as stripped back as it comes. The two 40-minute monologues that form Howie the Rookie were here performed by Sean Hawkins and Andrew Henry (they are sometimes done by one actor), who took us pell-mell into a particularly violent, mordantly funny and wildly alive part of Dublin. O’Rowe’s extravagant text was given a brilliantly restrained setting by Lisa Mimmocchi of no more than a pile of bottle tops and a couple of chairs. Toby Schmitz directed.

Is This Thing On?, by Zoe Coombs Marr. Belvoir (October)

One stand-up comedienne, five versions of herself at different ages, and a riotous night to be had by all. What could have been a madwoman’s breakfast was held together with awesome, anarchic energy by Susan Prior. Kit Brookman and Zoe Coombs Marr directed.

Switzerland, by Joanna Murray-Smith. Sydney Theatre Company (November)

There’s a famous and famously reclusive novelist, an interloper and the spectre of the novelist’s most enduring character. The three collide in Joanna Murray-Smith’s audacious play, which starts innocuously enough as bio-drama, morphs into a psychological thriller and ends as fantastic realism. Sarah Pierse gets possibly the role of her career as Patricia Highsmith; Eamon Farren is the persistent young publisher’s emissary who wants the author to write another Tom Ripley novel. Sarah Goodes directs with a sure, elegant and witty touch. It runs until December 20.

A Christmas Carol, adapted from Charles Dickens by Benedict Hardie and Anne-Louise Sarks. Belvoir (November)

I adored everything about this. Michael Hankin’s set is spare but full of surprises, Mel Page’s costumes are festive and I had to suppress a desire to run onstage and hug every actor at the end. A Christmas Carol celebrates love and generosity. Amen to that. Anne-Louse Sarks directed. (Fittingly, it runs until Christmas Eve.)

Tomorrow: International theatre ( I promise it will be much shorter)

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.