Theatre Review: Black Swan's Thrilling, Insightful 'Switzerland'
Perhaps I’ve been living under a rock for most of my life, or perhaps I’m simply not in the slightest bit as well read as I might have once rather arrogantly fancied myself. Before viewing Black Swan State Theatre Company’s mind turning production of Joanna Murray-Smith’s sharp tongued Switzerland, I had absolutely no idea of the character of Patricia Highsmith, the woman who crafted enduring classics such as The Ripliad series, Strangers on a Train and The Price of Salt (later published as Carol). What I discovered during this 100 minute psychological thriller of a play (in its own right) about one of the greatest contributors to said genre of the 20th century was a highly riveting and suspenseful probing of the human condition, the modern world, and a tiny glimpse into the mind of a great writer.
As one of Australia’s most acclaimed playwrights, Joanna Murray-Smith is truly at her peak in Switzerland. The dark humour and cynicism oozing from the ageing character of Patricia Highsmith (a delightfully dry and sharp Jenny Davis) creates a dynamic chemistry based upon relentless insult and playful (yet usually savage) harassment of young publishing delegate Edward Ridgway (the charismatic and lovable Giuseppe Rotondella). Edward ventures from New York (her old place of residence) to Switzerland at the instruction of his publishing company in order to try to persuade her to agree to write another Ripley novel. You see, when young Edward marches his way through Highsmith’s door, he disturbs her reclusive peace; surrounded by her cats, antique weapon collection, snails (whom she takes pleasure in observing) and most distinctly of all, isolation.
Photos by Philip Gostelow
What ensues is a means for both characters, as opposite in personality as personalities come, to learn from one another. Just about every clash in ideals is discussed: age and youth, racism and inclusiveness, love and hate (Highsmith constantly jibes at Edward’s ‘love everyone’ attitude, typical of millennials) , and it makes for achingly funny but also eye opening theatre. Simmering under all the superficial conflict is a crisis of creativity and what it means to be a writer—something that almost anyone who’s ever dreamed of putting word to page will find engaging.
Switzerland is set (you guessed it) in Switzerland, although the set is hardly suggestive of this fact, aside from one genius detail: the stage is tilted at rather a sharp angle, so that it appears to be perched ‘uphill’ from the audience’s perspective. Set designer Bruce McKinven has managed to use this unlevelled stage to both remove the world of Highsmith from the audience, as well as to give the physical feeling of living on (or in) a mountain. The use of grey hues coupled with windowless wall panels manages to create the atmosphere of living in an old bunker (as Patricia Highsmith does) perfectly, and allows us to share a part of what feels like a very secret world.
Switzerland is a play of many words, so if you’re looking for fast paced fight-scene action, perhaps it’s not for you. However, the words it does deliver are rich and compelling (not to mention, for the thousandth time, full of humour). Highsmith ends up feeling like that amazing tongue-in-cheek great aunt who you perhaps feel, for political correctness’ sake, you should berate, but you love all the more for that. By the end of the play, I found myself wishing I could have met the woman, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone.