Joanna Murray-Smith: Switzerland

Two faces of January in Joanna Murray-Smith's Switzerland, reviewed by Art News Editor Connie Brown.

The characters of Switzerland skate across a black lake for the play’s duration, the stage floor a hard, mirrored darkness into which the stylish furnishings and spiral staircase pool and double. I say skate but Sarah Peirse’s Patricia Highsmith only shuffles hunchbacked in her brown leather loafers around the sparse room followed by clots of cigarette smoke—the scene: a Hopper painting of a Le Corbusier interior. It is from a prawn’s posture that she hurls insults at the young and eager Edward Ridgeway (played by Jarred Blakiston), an envoy from her New York publisher, come to convince her to write another instalment to her famous Ripley series. He looks like a Hardy Boy and speaks in references and bad french. “Fwaa graa!!!” she yells at him when he presents a tin of the cruel delicacy to her as a gift. She later feeds it to her cat. At one point he uses air quotes, to her disgust. Nothing is so horrifying to the great crime writer as the ‘so-called’. 

The floor is the first in a hall of mirrors. The second is a knife with a stout and polished blade meant for gutting that catches the stage lights brilliantly. Knowing where the knife is and who holds it is important, as this encounter that should be transactional and of which we at first feel certain of the odds slips into something more phantasmalas author slips into reader slips into character, slips into the matter of artistic legacy. 

Legacy was never to be simple for a writer like Highsmith. She works in one of the low genres, crime fiction, so is largely shunned by the literary establishment, whom she shuns in turn, choosing to live alone in the Swiss Alps, paranoid that her neighbours are trying to kill her. On top of this she’s a woman and a lesbian, not to mention a racist. Though playwright Joanna Murray-Smith doesn’t shy from this latter fact of her subject—if anything she revels in the contradiction of Highsmith as both astute analyst of the human psyche and pitifully obvious bigot—she treats the vogue question of separating the art from the artist as an existential rather than moral problem.

How to die as death’s high-priestess? Insofar as Switzerland confronts the artist with the one ending they can’t plot perfectly it recalls (here I go with my own references) Joe Gideon’s final number in All that Jazz (Bob Fosse, 1979), less the sequins. Gideon’s manic depression in dying a great artist with no friends is countered by Highsmith’s consolation in dying a great artist with no friends but one great character: Tom Ripley, immortal and perfect as she can only ever hope to be. Switzerland’s finest moments are those in which it acknowledges the desire that drives creation, when Peirse goes doe-eyed recalling Highsmith’s first encounter with Ripley, when, in seeing an ordinary hatless man on an ordinary New York street, countless stories of transgression and transformation were set in motion. All the best art is a coup de foudre (“Koo duh-foo-druh!!!) and all the best characters, like Highsmith herself here, keep us guessing. 

Header image: Sarah Peirse as Patricia Highsmith and Jarred Blakiston as Edward Ridgeway in Switzerland, written by Joanna Murray-Smith and directed by Sarah Goodes. Photo: Anna Benhak

Switzerland, an Auckland Theatre Company production, is showing at the ASB Waterfront Theatre from 17 September–7 October 2023. 

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