Prolific Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith writes a love letter to Patricia Highsmith, the late American novelist and author of Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr Ripley series of thrillers, in this tightly scripted and darkly funny two-hander.

Embracing Highsmith’s well-documented irascibility and general grouchiness, Murray-Smith depicts the writer at the end of her life in the early 1990s, at her home near Locarno in Switzerland. She’s visited upon by Edward Ridgeway (Eamon Farren), a meek yet determined young man from her publisher’s office who’s been sent to gain her agreement to writing a sixth and final Tom Ripley novel before the cancer she has been diagnosed with takes her life. Highsmith (Sarah Pierse) “doesn’t like people” and she wastes little time in making him aware that she has neither the desire, nor the inspiration to write another Ripley novel.

But Edward isn’t to be so easily dissuaded and craftily he sets about piquing her interest in the project by demonstrating his passion for her work, to the point that she invites him to stay for the night and sets him the challenge to provide her with the idea for Ripley’s next murder. Of course, it mustn’t be your run-of-mill killing, but rather an assassination of great wit and wile.

Edward and Patricia are two minds well matched and their battle of wills is a highly entertaining one as Murray-Smith fills Highsmith’s dialogue with wickedly entertaining vitriol, while the young man’s rejoinders are full of equally shrewd repartee. This isn’t a biographical story, nor is it necessary to have read Highsmith’s work or to have watched any of the films and plays based upon her writing in order to understand or enjoy this story. Many fascinating elements of Highsmith’s life are seamlessly integrated into the plot, including her sexuality, her views on race and religion and even her penchant for snails, making it easy for newcomers to embrace the story.

It’s difficult to say much more about the plot without spoiling the very cunning structure and an exciting reveal, but Murray-Smith’s observations on the process and art of writing are clearly a form of tribute to a writer whom she very much admires and that admiration drives a creation that is full of love and homage.

This production first appeared as part of the Sydney Theatre Company’s 2014 season and this re-staging shows no loss for the time passed. In fact, surely only the opposite can be true as Pierse and Farren seem to be at the height of their powers. Pierse embodies Highsmith’s osteoporotic hump with an extraordinarily physical performance and relishes all of her deliciously venomous dialogue. Farren is a chameleon who evolves Edward to show a practical 180 degree turn around in characterisation by the story’s dramatic ending. Together the pair are electric.

Director Sarah Goodes production is a striking one and at a swift hour and forty minutes is perfectly balanced. Set and Costume designs by Michael Scott-Mitchell perfectly represent Highsmith’s dour, masculine tastes in both clothing and décor, while providing cosy environs for the verbal jousting that unfolds. Lighting by Nick Schlieper and Sound by Steve Francis provide moody support.

In a year that has included the fantastic Jasper Jones, brilliant Miss Julie and delightful Ladies in Black, Switzerland is easily one of the highlights of MTC’s 2016 season.

 

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