Review: Black Swan Theatre Company-
State Theatre Centre, 24 September –
Review by Varnya Bromilow-
As a play, Switzerland is very much like the woman it portrays: funny, unusual and ultimately, perplexing. Penned by acclaimed Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith, the work is intended as a glimpse into the troubled psyche of crime novelist Patricia Highsmith. Highsmith wrote 22 novels, the most famous of which centred around the devilish psychopath Tom Ripley. While Highsmith received considerable popular acclaim (and wealth) from her art, she was frustrated by the lack of respect granted her by the literary establishment in New York. Bemoaning the influence of these “old men”, she chose in 1964 to move to Switzerland.
Highsmith was famous not only for the brilliance of her writing and the tautness of her plots, but also her misanthropy. A deft deployer of “bon mots”, she once stated that she preferred animals to people and regularly referred to friends and colleagues as “numbskulls” and “idiots”. Tales of her insults and unconventional behaviour were legendary…perhaps my personal favourite is the tale of her attendance at a London dinner party with handbag full of lettuce and snails. The snails, she said, were her “companions for the evening.” (She had a collection of 300 snails she had bred in her garden.)
Switzerland is a two-hander that revolves around an imagined meeting between Highsmith and Edward Ridgeway, a representative of her New York publisher. Ridgeway has been sent to visit Highsmith as an emissary of sorts – charged with the ardous task of convincing the famously thorny Highsmith to write a final instalment of her best-selling Ripley series. The play consists of a series of barbed and impassioned exchanges between the acerbic Highsmith and ever-hopeful Ridgeway, then giving way to a darker examination of Highsmith’s inner life.
In the role of Highsmith, WA actor Jenny Davis shines. Davis has remarked on the joy in securing such a meaty role for an older woman and her delight in portraying such a richly idiosyncratic character is palpable. The play is littered with Highsmith’s caustic aphorisms and Davis savours each, delivering the punch of the insults with an archly dry style. Her accent is quite bizarre – accurately channelling Highgmsith’s own awkward melding of Texan/New York/transatlantic tones. It’s a tribute to vocal coach Julia Moody that Davis manages to pull off this peculiar amalgam.
As the optimistic foil of Edward Ridgeway, Giuseppe Rotondella provides welcome respite. Rotondella handles the gradual transformation of his character with aplomb – it’s a challenging narrative arc and he nails it.
The bulk of the play is packed with fast-paced exchanges punctuated with some wonderfully eloquent reflections on the purpose of art, of writing. The audience was utterly absorbed, cackling with delight at the outlandish statements of Highsmith and her incessant point-scoring. Highsmith’s sexuality has been the subject of heated and pointless debate – Murray-Smith wisely chooses to mostly skirt this topic while imbuing her script with enough frission that the audience was never quite sure where the relationship between the two characters was heading.
It’s in the latter third of the play that the show loses some steam. In her quest to examine Highsmith’s depression and voluntary isolation, Murray-Smith introduces an element of confusion to the character. While we know from Highsmith’s many biographers that the writer did suffer from some mental illness (predominantly anorexia nervosa and anxiety) this emphasis feels a little tabloid. The play makes an awkward transition from a scintillating battle of wits into something of a psychological treatise and falters in doing so.
For all that, Switzerland is vastly entertaining and it is an unmitigated pleasure to see Davis in such brilliant form.
Top: Jenny Davis and Giuseppe Rotondella in ‘Switzerland’. Photo: Philip Gostelow.