Swiss sophistication

Switzerland (Queensland Theatre Company)

The Greenhouse, Bille Brown Studio

May 20 – June 26

From the moment audiences enter QTC’s Bille Brown Studio, they are absorbed into the aesthetic of Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith’s “Switzerland”, an imagined interaction between American author Patricia Highsmith (creator of the famous serial killer character Tom Ripley) and a visiting rep from her publisher, shortly before her death.

plastic bag

The encounter may be fictional, but the staging shows inspiration from her real house in Tegna, Switzerland, from show of her prized weapon collection to the plastic bag mysteriously hanging from the ceiling. Beneath a wall of framed cat photos, Highsmith (Andrea Moor) is hunched over, tapping away at a typewriter. She’s not a technology Luddite, but rather one with a inherit dislike of modern life in general. In fact, as is soon apparent, she doesn’t like much at all, including the visiting Edward Ridgeway (and it is personal).

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Ridgeway (Mathew Backer) has been sent from New York to where Highsmith lives in reclusive self-exile in the Swiss Alps, caught in her own tragedy of past-trauma torment. Knowing of her illness, her US publisher wants him to persuade her to write another, final psychologically-thrilling Ripey story. But getting her to sign the contract is no easy task. Although fiercely articulate in her own acumen, Highsmith is dismissive of intellectualism and belittlement is her default position as she attempts to bully him away. This gives the play an early orientation against which to anchor its cat-and-mouse game-play as the protagonists take audiences along a tense 80 minute ride, including an intriguing final twist that see Ridgeway reappearing as Ripley, the concrete rather than abstract chameleon character.

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Especially in their initial, biting banter, the two characters smash out line after line of quotable comments and insightful observations. There is eloquence, too, particularly in Ridgeway’s discussion of the writing process and Highsmith’s creation of a character with who she shares such intimacy (as allusion to his later appearance) and discussion of the role of tragedy in a character’s tapestry.

The shrewd, witty writing is realised by riveting performances from both Moor and Backer as their equally complicated characters. Moor is perfectly blunt as the legendary grump, sharp-tongued and unapologetic in her provocative opinions and intrusive questioning of Ridgeway’s background, yet also, later, insecure in her essential aloneness and acceptable of preference to ‘be a somebody somewhere you hate than a nobody somewhere you belong’. And Backer’s realisation of Ridgeway’s journey from nervous fan to more assertive contributor is measured enough be beguiling in its transformation. This is a performance that is fascinating to watch, filled as it is with subtleties; with even just the tilt of his head, for example, he tells so much of his character’s changing confidence.

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Although “Switzerland” is a swift, sharp and sophisticated work, under the direction of Paige Rattray, it is also, simultaneously, a slow burn of a theatre experience. It is more tightly charged than its opening humour might imply and is filled with clues as to its gripping narrative and challenging conclusion. Its naturalistic set of muted beiges as backdrop to its thrilling story, is amongst the Bille Brown Studio’s best. And its engrossing twists will have you reflecting and sharing in conversation long after you leave the theatre.

Photos c/o – Rob Maccoll

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