Switzerland – Circa Theatre’s absorbing “life and art” thriller

Circa Theatre presents:

SWITZERLAND by Joanna Murray-Smith

Catherine Downes  –  Patricia Highsmith
Simon Leary            –   Edward Ridgeway

Susan Wilson – director
Tony De Goldi – set designer
Marcus McShane – lighting
Sheila Horton – costumes
Gareth Farr – music

Circa Two,
Circa Theatre, Taranaki St, Wellington

Tuesday, 20th March, 2018

Playwright Joanna Murray-Smith remembers her mother reading American author Patricia Highsmith’s novels “voraciously”, and with an intensity of concentration that left a deep impression upon her. She was to find herself in turn similarly “drawn in” by Highsmith’s writing, in particular by what she termed her “utterly fearless curiosity about the darkness of the human psyche”. Subsequently, in her play “Switzerland”, where Murray-Smith depicts the author, in self-imposed exile, seemingly on the verge of creating a new novel featuring her most successful fictional character, Tom Ripley, there’s a remarkable sense of a subconscious rebirth of Highsmith’s legendary gamut of irreconcilable antagonisms in the writing, which the present production relishes in a no-holds-barred fashion.

Though amply recognised in Europe as a writer, and enjoying fame with Alfred Hitchcock’s screen adaptation of her first major novel, “Strangers on a Train”, Highsmith considered she had been shunned by the “dead, white American male” literary elite  – we hear some of the novelist’s candid opinions of the worth of some of these well-known figures expressed in no uncertain terms during the play – and her withdrawal to Switzerland represented both defiance and disillusionment as regards her homeland (she was born in Fort Worth, Texas in 1921). Besides the Hitchcock film, she became well-known for her “Ripley” novels, creating one of literature’s most fascinating characters, the “charming psychopath” Tom Ripley.

Highsmith’s downright Swiftian attitudes towards humanity received plenty of colourful fleshing-out in Murray-Smith’s work – actor Catherine Downes’ feisty, acid-humoured portrayal flung her character’s manifold prejudices and bigotries in all directions most convincingly, amid lashings of vitriolic splendour, one-liners which blazed like short-lived fireworks across our vistas – “Happiness? Happy people simply don’t ask enough questions!” We were treated to a piecemeal, but essentially confessional resume of Highsmith’s traumatic childhood – “Childhood! – one big repository of terror!”- as well as being acquainted in no uncertain terms with various updated preoccupations, her fondness for guns and knives, her penchant for “show tunes” and her New Year resolutions, such as “Drink more!”

What’s most tellingly and even creepily revealed, however, is the novelist’s inward, but gradually-burgeoning fascination and empathy with one of her own characters, that of Tom Ripley. Murray-Smith brings this idea into bold physical relief by introducing the fictional figure of Edward Ridgeway at the play’s outset, a young man sent by Highsmith’s New York publishers to help persuade the writer to produce another “Tom Ripley” novel, something that would, as the young man tremulously puts it to her, bring back into focus her greatest achievement, the revitalisation of her most memorable character. Despite her initial refusal and caustic and demeaning manner towards the messenger, he persists, in the process gradually shedding his awkwardness; and so it is that he brings into play a two-handed game of “cat and mouse” between them, one whose outcome we might guess at but about which we can never be absolutely sure.

Simon Leary’s finely-gradated portrayal of the mysterious stranger from the publishing firm is the perfect foil at the outset for Downes’ free-wheeling, determinedly disagreeable Highsmith. His persistence, at first seemingly naïve, and insufficiently robust, doesn’t take long to develop a kind of “edge” of its own, so that we become less and less certain of where his character is actually coming from or, in fact, going towards. As he breaks down her resistance to the idea of a new “Ripley” he gathers surety and displays occasional bravado – while Highsmith see-saws the process at her end, promising to sign a new contract if he will come up with a scenario for her concerning the fate of a rich old lady in the new story.

Each of the play’s three run-together scenes bolsters the young man’s strength and confidence, and in parallel appears to weaken or dissipate the writer’s defences – the pair’s interaction takes on a Pinter-esque quality as she talks about a childhood memory of a man she once saw and has been “chasing” ever since, and he subsequently answers her telephone in her temporary absence, to (shockingly) “Mr Edward Ridgeway of New York”. By this time we’re uncertain of just which character’s dream we’ve been taken into – it’s almost as though Murray-Smith might be thinking of the “Liebestod” from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde”, here, with Highsmith similarly transported at the thought of a mystical Isolde-like union with her dream-lover, the “man she has been chasing”. Anyway, to go further than this would spoil the story’s ending and the frisson of the unexpected that Murray-Smith so tantalisingly creates.

Susan Wilson’s direction of this at once larger-than-life and intensely “interior”psychological tale beautifully oversees the playwright’s colourful ebb-and-flow of the characters’ intentions and interactions, orchestrating the acerbity of Highsmith into a creative symphonic flow of interaction with her increasingly provocative and catalytic antagonist. Her actors are terrific, both Downes and Leary seemingly attuned to that same idea of alternating give-and-take with random spikings, and playing into one another’s hands accordingly.

Tony De Goldi’s set initially puts us disconcertingly at ease, apart from the wall display of weaponry, which Marcus McShane’s lighting brings in and out of prominence as required. And Sheila Horton’s dressing of the young man over three scenes deftly underpins his growing assertiveness and dominance within the relationship, while firmly anchoring Highsmith’s general appearance in the garb of a long-time solitary and cranky bohemian, outwardly expressing a contempt for convention.

Adding a distinctive flavour to the theatrical ambience of the sort that I always thought Jack Body’s music used to do for the local tv series “Close to Home” was Gareth Farr’s beautiful and evocative music – the opening 5/4 marimba pulsings were nicely equivocal, as a contrast to  the creepily menacing bass tread underpinning eerily modulating chords accompanying the first scene transition, And equally disquieting was the deep throbbing of percussion and piano accompanying the lead-up sequence to Highsmith signing the contract, the 5/4 marimba music returning to temporarily pour water on troubled oils! The final scene I thought had some exquisitely beautiful scoring, Farr’s music perfectly complementing the scene’s visionary-like ambiences, and by contrast making the reappearance at the very end of the strains of “Happy Talk” from “South Pacific” at once valedictory and joyous, almost Mahlerian in its bathos.

This production is the New Zealand premiere of the work, one that runs until the 14th of April. It seems to me a must-see for so many reasons – as well as being suspenseful entertainment, it’s a mover and shaker of a piece, and a purposeful boundaries-pusher, one that poses questions about both art and fantasy and their interaction with and relevance to everyday life.

Circa Two until April 14th 2018



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