Joanna Murray-Smith’s drama about thriller writer Patricia Highsmith’s dying days sequestered in Switzerland is brilliant, sinister entertainment in the Hitchcock mode. By Peter Craven.

‘Switzerland’ at MTC

Sarah Peirse in Switzerland.
Sarah Peirse in Switzerland.
Credit: Brett Boardman

In this story

It’s three years or so now since Joanna Murray-Smith wrote Switzerland, her play about Patricia Highsmith, that master of the creepy thriller, which the Melbourne Theatre Company in an inexplicable misjudgement knocked back. Fortunately, the Sydney Theatre Company thought otherwise, and this play about the creator of Mr Ripley and the author of Strangers on a Train, which seems at a glance destined for the main stages of the world, is mounted in this production with Sarah Peirse as Highsmith and Eamon Farren as the young man from the publisher who visits her in her Swiss retreat.

The play was done to a coolish critical reception, a few months after its inaugural Sydney opening, at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles at the start of 2015, with that fine actress Laura Linney weirdly cast as Highsmith. On the page Switzerland seems to cry out for the most heavyweight casting imaginable. Ellen Burstyn, say, and James Franco, or Glenda Jackson and Cillian Murphy. It says something about the STC’s production, now playing at MTC’s Sumner theatre, that although Farren’s credible performance as the visitor could be better, Peirse inhabits the mordant character of Highsmith with such savagery and such scalpel-like glitter and depth of feeling that you feel she could conquer any stage in the world.

This is a superb performance, impeccable in its every flat mocking American cadence, dazzling in its authority, its power and its style. We almost never see a play of such mainstream appeal that is at the same time as dramatically powerful as this, and it is a thing of wonder that in this production we have a central performance of such iron and blood and stabbing grandeur.

Switzerland is something of a miracle of a play because it sustains almost every jot and tittle of Murray-Smith’s lust for international glory. This is a play about a big-time subject with a famous and famously formidable figure at its centre – the woman who among other things wrote The Price of Salt, the Cate Blanchett vehicle adapted by Todd Haynes as Carol– that toughest lesbian woman known to recent collective memory who was also, as an artist, a master of what Graham Greene called “disquiet”.

And Murray-Smith has succeeded in not only creating a wholly credible portrait of Highsmith, one that in no way minimises the novelist and short story writer’s unlovely qualities, but she has also made this two-hander – which runs with mounting tension for an interval-less hundred minutes with an effortless dramatic pace – into a knife-edge thriller that not only pays elaborate homage to the art of its subject but brings to mind the great masters of the cat-and-mouse caper: Hitchcock, early Polanski, even (mad though it sounds) Dostoyevsky.

With almost exactly the same ambivalence as Highsmith’s own transfigured trash writing, Switzerland is commercial theatre and its eventual destiny should be to end up as a famous film. It’s such a good script that it makes you imagine what Brian De Palma in his Indian summer could make of its nervy, brilliant pas de deux for two assassins of all civility.

The plot is simple and brilliant though the central conception is such a winner it can’t be revealed. The great crime-meister is in the greyness of her years; in fact she is dying in the Swiss lair that keeps her away from the drama and bustle of New York, which she remembers with a lover’s loathing.

But this woman who the world, especially the highbrow French world, knows as a Shakespeare of the penny dreadful, in fact owes a manuscript to her New York publisher. And so a young man, gushing and gormless, easily pinned like a butterfly by Highsmith’s piercing eye, comes to see her, begging for her indulgence, for her signature on the contract, for the promise, a dying promise, that one last book will be delivered.

And then gradually, as the light falls, and the night deepens, everything changes and we find ourselves in a world where dreams cross and powers and dominations rise up like apparitions, sinister and suggestive and knowing no mercy. It’s an extraordinary two-hander for an older woman and a younger man, that deeply satisfying combination, too rarely glimpsed, of the witch who wrestles with the angel until all masks are cast away, or seem to be.

Sarah Goodes’ production is lavish, expert and imperfect. The house in the safe place – now there’s a joke – has a spare elegant richness. It looks like a dream of yesteryear’s Luxe, calme et volupté with an effect a bit like the ample colour and understated largesse of middle-period Hitchcock. Goodes chooses to use the full horizontal reach of the Sumner’s very wide stage so that there are moments when the duelling between the two contrasted figures seems to be played out in a living room with the dimensions of a tennis court.

Nick Schlieper’s lighting seems a bit too consistently bright, a bit too suggestive of daytime sun in alpine glory, when the whole action of Switzerland, whatever the literal time, should take place during that dark night of the soul where it is always (wasn’t it F. Scott Fitzgerald who said so?) three o’clock in the morning.

I would also, for what it’s worth, have rather seen this knife-edge two-hander very close up rather than from house seats – not simply because that’s my abiding preference, but because Switzerland is a play where everything is reduced to two figures, two faces, two bodies.

Both performances are very fine. Farren captures the gormless American good manners of a young man on the make, and then the various shifts in the character with considerable skill. He’s personable and good at both registering a type and swerving from it unpredictably, though he could have been a touch more gradual, a touch subtler in the way his metamorphosis begins like a suggestion, then a surmise, then something else.

But Peirse is a revelation. This is a performance that swoops up the elegant, agnostic Europeanised Americanness of the character with an effortless accuracy, the idiom so totally inhabited that the characterisation can grow and complicate, it can go crazy and formidable and fearful with no strain whatsoever. It is a magnificent performance – poised, lethal, utterly masterful but with a core of humanity that is the opposite of actorish.

There is something just a bit astonishing about the fact that a play as good as this, with a breadth of appeal so patent it sounds like money – Switzerland is, among other things, a play that will lure audiences like Sleuth or Agnes of God – has actually found its star here in Australia.

Everyone should see this performance, everyone should see this play, even if you think you are allergic to well-made bits of theatrical thrillerdom. It’s not flawless – there is a speech or two where Murray-Smith’s cultural delicatessenism is laid on too thick, there are moments when Farren’s performance misses a step into the dark lake or Goodes misjudges the knives, just missing the fingers. But the upshot has such authority, such glamour and surging human feeling, it makes the theatre look like something else again – something like the great powerhouse of words and acting and feelings to which film and television are just memorials.


1 . Arts Diary

THEATRE Faith Healer

Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney, until November 27

CINEMA Russian Resurrection Film Festival

Event Cinemas, Sydney, October 27-November 6

Capitol Cinema, Canberra, November 1-6

Event Cinemas, Brisbane, November 2-9

ACMI, Melbourne, November 10-16

Cinema Paradiso, Perth, November 10-16

MULTIMEDIA Liveworks 2016

Performance Space, Sydney, October 27-November 6

FESTIVAL Feast Festival

Various venues, Adelaide, until November 8

FASHIONViktor&Rolf: Fashion Artists

NGV International, Melbourne, until February 26

Last chance

MUSIC MoVement Sydney

Various venues, Sydney, until October 23

FASHION Adelaide Fashion Festival

Various venues, Adelaide, until October 23

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 22, 2016 as "Swiss armoured life".

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Peter Craven is a literary and culture critic.

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