A play that delves in the mind of a crime novelist
Switzerland is the latest play by Australian Playwright Joanna Murray and is brought to Queensland by the Queensland Theatre Company. It delves into the life and motivations of one of the 20th centuries great crime novelists, Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr Ripley).
The play tells is a fictional story about the author Patricia Highsmith. If you don't know the name you might recognise some of her most famous works, including Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr Ripely. Highsmith is a smoking, hard drinking, foul mouthed and outspoken author who has run off to live as a recluse in the Swiss Alps.
Her stories are well known for murderers who not only get away with murder, but who you want to succeed in their crimes. Sometimes dismisses as simply crime novels, her stories delve deep into the human psyche and our ability, no, our desire to commit murder and get away with it.
The story, the conceit as it were, involves a representative of her publishing company, Edward Ridgeway. coming to visit her and push her to complete another Mr Ripley novel. What ensures is a battle of wits between young and old, between innocent and jaded, between fan and author, and between business and art.
This is a good old fashioned play, where actors really have an opportunity to shine in their performance. Here are roles that encompass weakness and strength, intellectual argument and raw emotion and of course basest human desires.
What will Edward need to do to persuade Highsmith to finish her novel and sign a contract? Is there more to Edward than we first realise. How much is what we are seeing real or the imagination of the artist.
The production puts a lot of detail in creating Highmith's Swiss bungalow, and in the fairly intimate Bille Brown studio at The Greenhouse in South Brisbane, you feel like you are there in the house with the actors rather than watching from afar.
The Australian production has a fundamental flaw compared with the staging in Los Angeles. In the American production, vistas of the Swiss Alps fill the background and that comes critical to the central plot twist in the story (which I won't give away.) This may have been for practical limitations of the theatre space and it does mean more of the story and transformation hinges on the actors rather than the staging, and audiences may miss a vital clue because of this. It is a pity that the production focuses more on decorating the rooms correctly (which a theatre audience doesn't really need) rather than this critical aspect needed to support the story.
The work is fairly minimalist with just two actors. While many are describing this work as a one act play, the reality is that there are 3 distinct parts to the story and the characters enter each part transformed to some extent. In the end this is a production designed for actors to act.
I love stories about the creative process and the motivations of artists as well as that of fans and the processes of the production. Switzerland takes no sides and pulls apart society, the human psyche and the creative process to examine what lies behind the works of Patricia Highsmith and their success.
That is one of the first problems. The play is more of a polite intellectual conversation dressed up as an argument. It is interesting, but that is problem, it is really only interesting. Despite the swearing, knives and guns, this ends up as a conversation between intellectuals, not a battle of wills.
The two characters in the play are brilliant and the performances by the actors are fantastic. Andrea Moor manages to truly inhabit this larger than life character of Patricia Highsmith. Here is a character that feels genuinely real but should also be on a stage.
There is an intriguing plot twist and of course murder. Lines are blurred between what is real and what is imaginary, but the production here doesn't achieve this as well as the productions in Sydney and Melbourne.
In the end the play fulfills the audience intellectually with most of the audience leaning forward, chins on fists, intrigued by the arguments. When the story ends, people are going "oh" and "Aha". In fact I had to go away and think about some of the aspects of the play, and the more you think about it, the more you realise there were other twists and hidden meanings in there as well. This is wonderful in itself. But there is no great emotional impact.
In the end this is a play for fans of literature and theatre. A great night out for anyone who enjoys their entertainment to be cerebral.
About the Queensland Theatre Company
Established in 1970, The Queensland Theatre Company includes both main stage and studio theatre plays. The company has a long history of fostering and developing local talent. With such a great pool of talent it is always worthwhile checking out their small plays at The Greenhouse.
The Greenhouse is the home of the Queensland Theatre Companies studio theatres