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.

Fury, Stories I Want to Tell You in Person

Fury

Sydney Theatre Company, Wharf 1, April 19

JOANNA Murray-Smith recently spoke on radio of the seductive power of argument, of recalling the sound of her parents and their friends talking passionately long into the night. Those long-evaporated murmurs are the wellspring of Fury, Murray-Smith’s absorbing new play.

Alice (Sarah Peirse) is a neuroscientist at the top of her game and about to receive a huge honour when her 16-year-old son Joe (Harry Greenwood) does something incendiary. Alice is as aghast as you’d expect of any intelligent, socially committed, left-leaning woman and mother, but Joe’s act of rebellion, assertion, independence, whatever, opens up family fault lines at the very moment Alice’s life is up for public scrutiny.

Harry Greenwood and Sarah Peirse in Fury. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Harry Greenwood and Sarah Peirse in Fury. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

“You’re not who you said you were,” her novelist husband Patrick is driven to say as Alice must finally acknowledge an intellectually messy and morally grubby truth.

Under Andrew Upton’s direction the play’s concerns unfold crisply in a series of set-piece conversations and confrontations. Murray-Smith’s familiar style of whip-smart dialogue and ever-so-slightly heightened realism is matched perfectly by designer David Fleischer’s setting of monolithic grey walls and a desirable tiled floor. It’s a cool, cerebral space in which outbursts of emotion look surprising, as if rare here.

Alice says in the play’s opening scene that there’s “always something to hide” but it doesn’t appear to occur to her that this is more than a clever quip to a journalist.  Ah, yes, the journalist. Murray-Smith gives a writer from a student rag a key role but despite Geraldine Hakewill’s creditable efforts to animate the part it never rings true. Rebecca is a device, not a character, and it’s scarcely credible she would get this degree of access to Alice and Patrick, played with rumpled defensiveness by Robert Menzies.

That jarring note aside, Fury proceeds at a compelling pace for its 100 minutes or so. The many themes emerge with great clarity, among them the porous line between idealism and self-centredness, the clash of generations, the centrality of family, the secret and changing self, the animating power of rage. Murray-Smith hones her lines to a high sheen that can introduce a whiff of the lecture room but the pay-off is in her acutely aware observations. There’s the occasional zinger too: vegans beware.

Peirse has a cracker of a role in Alice and gets the fragility not far beneath the witty, ultra-capable surface. Greenwood, making his Sydney Theatre Company debut, is extraordinarily good as the truculent, initially monosyllabic youth, making him brightly alive and engaging. And Fury is possibly at its most challenging and fascinating through the articulate pragmatism of Annie and Bob (Claire Jones and Yure Covich, both wonderful), the rock-solid working-class parents of Joe’s sidekick in crime, the unseen Trevor.

When I returned home from Fury’s opening the news was dominated by the two young men believed to have been responsible for the Boston bombings. Parallels with Fury aren’t exact but there’s enough for the play to feel very timely.

Ends June 8.

Stories I Want to Tell You in Person

Belvoir Downstairs, April 18

IF LALLY Katz has a slow spell in her increasingly impressive playwriting career she could always turn to stand-up comedy. Which she’s essentially done with Stories I Want to Tell You in Person, an exuberant whirl through her life in which she touches on matters of love, theatre, obsession and the supernatural.

Katz claims an appearance as a rabbit is her only previous onstage experience but she’s a natural performer: funny, super-likeable, vibrant and with a fund of fabulous anecdotes and a willingness to use anything to get a laugh, no matter how personal or humiliating. My favourite bit concerns a hostile transvestite karaoke bar and the massacre of Don’t Cry for Me Argentina but the show is pretty much a hoot from start to finish.

Lally Katz in Stories I Want to Tell You in Person. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Lally Katz in Stories I Want to Tell You in Person. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Stories I Want to Tell You in Person came about after an earlier Belvoir commission fell into a heap. With Katz’s gift for creating intimate, magical and emotionally rich worlds (Neighbourhood Watch, Smashed) she was perhaps a courageous choice for a piece about the global financial crisis, but that was the gig. The play is yet to be produced, possibly because it was written so quickly. Katz had her mind on other things, chief among them how to be successful in love as well as in work. She turned to psychics for help, a quest that was extremely expensive and, as it turns out, ripe for theatrical exploitation.

And herein lies the enjoyable slipperiness of Stories I Want to Tell You. Was Katz truly seeking enlightenment in tarot, palm and crystal ball readings on 14th and 25th streets in New York? Or was she gathering material? She says several times she has to live what she writes, but how calculated that equation is remains unknown and probably unknowable. Whatever the truth – and after all, what is truth? – this particular instance of it ended with Katz alone on the Belvoir Downstairs stage, standing in front of a glittering gold curtain, poured into tight black jeans and pouring out her stories with juicy frankness.

Although it raised knowing laughs, a tacked-on ending is slightly awkward. It refers to the last-minute postponement of Katz’s original opening night due to illness and at this point the polish slipped and Katz the person rather than Katz the performer appeared. The epilogue points up two things: that those who really know their theatre will get most enjoyment from the show, and that one should never forget the amount of artifice there is in the onstage presentation of a life.

Ends May 26. Then Malthouse, Melbourne, August 9-25

These reviews first appeared in The Australian on April 22