by Joanna Murray-Smith
Black Swan State Theatre Company
Director Lawrie Cullen-Tait
Set and costume designer Bruce McKinven
Lighting designer Lucy Birkenshaw
Composer/ Sound designer Ash Gibson Greig
With Jenny Davis and Giuseppe Rotondella
Heath Ledger Theatre
Until September 3
This is the fourth time I’ve gone to Joanna-Murray-Smithland, a favourite destination for our State Theatre Company, and my struggles with her continue. On this occasion altitude sickness is compounded by frustration, because she’s come up with a killer idea, arranged it expertly, but failed to pull it off.
None of the improbabilities and inconsistencies that marred Black Swan’s 2013 production of her Day One, a Hotel, Evening and destroyed 2011’s awful Ninety are here.
This is partly because this Switzerland is not a real place, and the skirmishes between her characters, the real-life novelist Patricia Highsmith (Jenny Davis) and the imagined publishing executive Edward Ridgeway (Giuseppe Rotondella) are phantasmagorical.
In this shifting reality, improbability and inconsistency becomes, if anything, a blessing rather than a curse.
Highsmith (Strangers on a Train, The Price of Salt/Carol, the five Tom Ripley novels) is boozing and smoking her way towards a lonesome death in grumpy self-imposed exile in Switzerland. She is visited by Ridgeway, a young man from her American publishers. He brings a contract for Highsmith to deliver a sixth and final installment of the Ripliad.
She’s aggressively disinterested in the project, and scornful of Ridgeway, his employers, other writers (the better the more) and anything and anyone else she turns her mind to.
She wants rid of Ridgeway, but he manages, somehow, to stick around. He plies her with gifts, those she demanded he bring with him and one, a beautiful dagger for her collection of antique weapons, unasked for.
He knows these weapons, in surprising detail. He knows her, and he knows her anti-hero. Like a book.
As the idea for the new Ripley story takes shape, it’s Ridgeway rather than Highsmith who brings its snakes and ladders to the table.
From there Switzerland wriggles its way to a climax to the Highsmithian manner born.
That’s the good news. Despite the play’s artfulness, the recruitment of Lawrie Cullen-Tait, a director with a real gift for staging the interplay of two people (Red, Venus in Fur), and a powerful creative team, the play founders on the rocks of Murray-Smith’s dialogue.
It’s highfalutin and self-indulgent, emotionally shallow and psychologically unconvincing. It leaves Highsmith, even in the hands of the admirable Davis, sounding strained and rote (if she’d yelled “G’wan, get out or I’ll call the cops!” at Ridgeway one more time, and I’d been on an aisle, I’d have been tempted to take her advice). All the acidity and wit is drained out of Highsmith, and with it any feeling – admiration or repulsion – we have for her.
Davis’s problems are compounded by an odd set (by Bruce McInven) that required two physiotherapists to be credited in the programme. A trapezium of grey granite with a rake for the performers that would struggle to pass an OH&S inspection – at one point Davis dropped a pencil that proceeded, unsettlingly, to roll away from her down the slope – it impressed initially but demanded too much attention from us, and far too much care from the actors, as the play wore on.
At least Rotondella’s character, and so his performance, goes somewhere. When we meet him he’s determined but a bit of a puppy, very like Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin in The Graduate. By the end he’s someone – or something – that looms much more dangerously. Guess who.
Rotondella is a young actor with a genuine talent and real appeal. Sadly, he’s one of very few reasons you should consider a trip to Switzerland.