Acclaimed Australian actor Jenny Davis OAM talks to Nina Levy about why her role in Black Swan State Theatre Company’s Switzerland holds special significance.
For Jenny Davis, one of the most appealing aspects of taking on the role of twentieth century novelist Patricia Highsmith in Switzerland is the character’s age. “It’s so wonderful that this is a role written for women in their seventies… a central role,” she enthuses, in a break between rehearsals. “Switzerland is a play about an older woman – she’s not an add-on, or an angry granny, or a miserable old bag – she’s the central character. It’s very empowering.”
The visibility of seniors is a subject close to Davis’s heart. She is the founder and director of Agelink Theatre, a company that makes theatre works to affirm the value of senior citizens, celebrate their wisdom and experience, and share their stories. The company not only presents professional work, but also engages with seniors, explains Davis. “We interview seniors and collect stories for our shows on stage but we also work with people with dementia and, after working with them for a few weeks, we bring them on stage and they tell their stories, briefly. They love it because they feel celebrated – it gives them a kind of authenticity. Their mood is elevated and it also helps their mental acuity. We’ve been working with Bethanie Riversea on that and we recently won the fifth Asia-Pacific Award for working in care for the elderly.”
A “senior” herself, Davis also won 2016 WA Senior of the Year, received an OAM in the Australia Day 2017 Honours List for a lifetime of service to the performing arts industry and was inducted into the WA Women’s Hall of Fame in March of this year. “The Department of Communities asked me to be their ambassador for positive ageing, so I’ve been popping about being very positive about ageing,” she adds with a laugh. “It’s not actually that difficult because there are a great many positives for being a senior, I can tell you, that you don’t actually realise until you get there. You think it’s going to be all downhill and then it’s not! Every era of your life has something new to offer.”
These awards and accolades have led to numerous invitations to speak publicly about ageing, and Davis says she is relishing these opportunities. “It’s been really busy in a way I hadn’t expected… but I’ve loved it! We all need to have our value affirmed, don’t we? And that’s what we do at Agelink. We’re always about affirming people’s value. You’re not on the scrapheap just because you’ve reached a certain age, or because you’re not contributing to society the way you used to. There are always new ways to contribute.”
So it’s no surprise that Davis is thrilled take on a role that places a woman in her seventies centre stage… and the character of Patricia Highsmith offers appropriate scope for an actor of Davis’s calibre. Written by Joanna Murray-Smith and directed by Lawrie Cullen-Tait, Switzerland finds Highsmith living a reclusive life in the Swiss Alps, taking solace in her collection of books and antique weapons, her cats and her cigarettes. The famed writer’s solitude is interrupted when a young man, Edward Ridgeway (played by Giuseppe Rotondella), arrives. He’s a delegate from her publisher, demanding a contract for another novel featuring her best-known character, Tom Ripley of The Talented Mr Ripley.
“It’s really exciting to be in a psychological thriller because we don’t get so many of those on stage anymore,” reflects Davis. “It’s the complexity of this character which is so fascinating. She’s full of rage, resentment and dark moments but she also has her witty, sardonic side. She’s very clever with words. There’s a certain amount of comedy in the play, as well as suspense. It’s a very rounded text and character… a lot of intellectual rigour but an emotional journey as well.”
There are interesting discussions in there about being human, getting older, facing death. In the end it’s quite positive, despite the fact that there is so much darkness in the play. There’s also a nice twist in the plot, which will keep you guessing.
Remembered for her suspense novels such as The Talented Mr Ripley, The Price of Salt (recently made into the film Carol) and Strangers on a Train, Patricia Highsmith was, by all accounts, a difficult, prickly person. “I don’t think she was very likeable and I think she almost cultivated that,” remarks Davis. “One of her passions was her snails. She liked to do anti-social things like taking the snails to dinner parties and letting them crawl on the table. The snails are a wonderful metaphor for her because she had this vulnerable part inside, which she cemented in a shell that the world saw. Not many people saw her vulnerable side. She had lots of private hurts that she never let go, all her life. Some were from her childhood – her mother was super-critical of her, and then deserted her when she was little. When she was in therapy later in life, the suggestion was that she sought out romantic relationships with people who were going to leave her.”
Highsmith also felt bitterness that she was not taken seriously as a writer in America, continues Davis. “She felt dismissed by the American literary establishment, which was male-dominated in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, dismissed as a crime novelist rather than recognised as a psychological writer,” she explains. “She was really furious that they didn’t regard her as highly in America as in Europe, so she spent the latter years of her life an exile because they didn’t ‘get’ her in America.”
“The other thing about her is that she was a lesbian but she was very anxious about that in her younger years because she was brought up strictly Calvinist,” Davis says. “So she tried to normalise herself, she tried to not be. She fought against it. It was always this secret in her life.”
While Switzerland is about Highsmith, it’s also about what it means to be a writer, an artist, a human being. “I think you’ll start out thinking, ‘God, this woman isn’t very likeable,’ but by the end of the play, you might understand where she’s coming from,” comments Davis. “There are interesting discussions in there about being human, getting older, facing death. In the end it’s quite positive, despite the fact that there is so much darkness in the play. There’s also a nice twist in the plot, which will keep you guessing. There’s a lot to take home and ruminate on. That, for me, is a yardstick for a good play, if I’m still thinking about it the next day.”
Top: Jenny Davis and Giuseppe Rotondella rehearsing ‘Switzerland’. Photo: Philip Gostelow