Switzerland - photo by David James McCarthyPatricia Highsmith was a successful author who wrote twenty-two novels, including her best-selling Ripliad – five books featuring her best known creation, the talented conman and killer, Tom Ripley.

Cantankerous, cynical and paranoid, she was not a sweet character; in fact her publisher described her as a mean, cruel, hard, unlovable, unloving human being. She had a talent for burrowing into amoral and macabre corners of the psyche, and spent her final years holed up in Switzerland.

For her play, Switzerland, playwright, Joanna Murray-Smith has harvested Highsmith’s eccentricities – her snail-breeding hobby, her collection of antique weapons, her love of show tunes and her racism, to devise a gripping two-hander that re-imagines the twilight of Highsmith’s life.

The play opens with the ageing Highsmith (Karen Vickery) alone in her study, which is decorated with an arsenal of antique weapons. She’s in the grip of writer’s block, and expecting a visit from Edward Ridgeway (Lachlan Ruffy), the young representative sent by her New York publisher to persuade her to write one more novel before she dies.

Highsmith is determined not to agree to Ridgeway’s overtures and when he arrives she is unwelcoming and unco-operative, bating him with hostile, supercharged insults. Ridgeway though is determined to succeed in his mission and not easily dissuaded.

He deftly deflecting her barbs, and when he suggests that he can provide her with an ending for her unfinished novel, her interest is finally piqued. However, when Highsmith questions his sexuality, Ridgeway’s response changes the direction of the play, leading to the final horrific denouement.

Jordan Best’s direction is confident and well-paced and Michael Sparks excellent triangular setting creates exactly the right mood, crammed as it is with a wealth of detail regarding Highsmith’s life and interests, and enhanced by the atmospheric lighting design of Cynthia Jolley Rogers, and Mathew Webster’s well-observed sound design.

Karen Vickery is fearless in her performance as the unlovely Highsmith, and is well teamed with Lachlan Ruffy, who manages the progression from gee-whiz kid to sinister intruder with considerable aplomb. Both relish the opportunities offered by Murray-Smith’s witty, acerbic, often funny dialogue.

Full houses for the entire season of this play are testimony to the appetite of Canberra audience for well-produced, sophisticated contemporary plays. Pigeonhole Theatre has again scored a winner with this excellent production of Joanna Murray-Smith’s tantalizing Switzerland.

The Courtyard Studio – Canberra Theatre Centre, London Circuit, Canberra
Performance: Thursday 5 July 2018
Season continues to Saturday 14 July 2018
Information and Bookings: www.canberratheatrecentre.com.au

Image: Karen Vickery as Patricia Highsmith in Switzerland – photo by David James McCarthy

Review: Bill Stephens OAM