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.

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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

Copros, classics and close-to-home tales

The Queensland Theatre Company has announced its 2016 season, the last programmed by outgoing Artistic Director Wesley Enoch who is departing the company to take up the role of Sydney Festival Director for the 2017 – 2019 Festivals. As Enoch noted at the season launch, “we make theatre because we like to tell stories.” And what a bunch of stories he has left as the final component of his legacy… diverse stories of ambition, achievement and bravery.

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The highlight, coming early in the year is “The Secret River” adaptation of Kate Grenville’s multi-award-winning bestselling novel that tells of the bloody beginnings of colonial Australia, when pardoned convicts clashed with the traditional owners of the land they settled along the banks of the Hawkesbury River. Coming off the back of this year’s lavish ABC miniseries and previous Sydney season, the Sydney Theatre Company co-production is sure to be a powerful, epic (featuring 22 actors on stage) experience of a work that will surely settle into the Australian theatrical cannon.

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The provocative themes will continue in October’s “Disgraced” a co-production with the Melbourne Theatre Company of Ayad Akhtar’s debut 2012 play and winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The stirring drama promises to challenge notions of Islamophobia and terrorism through its intimate, intellectual Manhattan dinner party setting, (like “God of Carnage” with politics and sans the catalyst children perhaps).

disgracedSimilarly small in scale, will be “Switzerland”, in which Andrea Moor presents a thrilling re-imagining of the last days of crime novelist Patrica Highsmith (author of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and other twisted tales).

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At the other end of the serious scale is the bright and bold “Bastard Territory”, a co-production with Perth’s Black Swan Theatre Company about the 1960s and ‘70s bohemian lifestyle of far northern Australia and the Pacific Islands residents. With soundtrack boasting Shirley Bassey and Suzi Q, it promises to be quite the weird and wonderful ride when it features at the Bille Brown Studio as a Season 2016 Add On.

A comedy of the more classic kind will be Moliere’s “Tartuffe” (starring Darren Gilshenan who was last year seen in “Mother and Son”), a co-production with Western Australia’s Black Swan Theatre Company. The story of the titular brazen conman may have first been performed in the 17th century but promises to be sinfully brilliant and perhaps surprisingly still relevant in its attack on religious hypocrisy and fanaticism.

The season opener at The Playhouse, “Quartet”, Directed by Andrea Moor, also promises to be devilishly funny as it journeys into old age with four feisty ageing opera singers who, having fallen upon hard times, find themselves trying to come to terms with life in a retirement home by headlining a convert to mark composer Verdi’s birthday.

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Fun too, will be the bantering, bickering Beatrice and Benedick, when Director Jason Karwein brings to life the classic romantic sparring of “Much Ado About Nothing”, one of the Bard’s most accessible and enjoyable comic works, when Shakespeare was ‘on his zing’, we are told at the launch. And as the prototypical but also terribly modern rom-com couple: squabbling like children until they realise they’re actually in love and fall into each other’s arms, Hugh Parker and Christen O’Leary promise to make love quite the battlefield. The addition of Ellen Bailey and Tama Maheson in paring as the more traditional Hero/Claudio couple is only added bonus, coming as they both are from some outstanding 2015 Brisbane Powerhouse performances.

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Indeed, it is wonderful to see so much local talent featuring within the season. And also that it will once again feature shows true to the Brisbane experience, whether it be from across the world or around the corner. Brisbane playwright, David Burton’s new work, “St Mary’s in Exile”, to be directed by Jason Klarwein, is one of those stories that would be beyond belief if it wasn’t true, telling the tale of how, in 2009, Brisbane’s Catholic community was rocked when the Catholic Church stepped in to oust beloved priest Father Peter Kennedy from his post at St Mary’s in South Brisbane.

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Motherland” is back too, moving from Metro Arts to QTC’s Bille Brown Studio, for a return season in April. This historical drama by local playwright Katherine Lyall-Watson was a 2014 highlight, telling with delicious language a trio of somewhat true stories: of Brisbane-born Nell who has travelled the world before marrying the Russian Prime Minister and helping him flee the Nazis in World War II, writer and academic Nina who quits her native Russia for Paris, only to return in her twilight years, and single mother Alyona, a Russian museum curator whisked away to Brisbane by an Australian businessman, in search of a brighter future. Both epic and intimate in its sweeping tales of different women from different times, united in the heartache of exile from their homelands, it will take audiences from the chaos of a Russian military coup, through the hell of Nazi-occupied France to a turbulent Brisbane in the throes of the Fitzgerald Inquiry.

And The Dead Puppets Society is also returning, this time for World Premiere of “The Wider Earth”, featuring local talents including Thomas Larkin and Margi Brown Ash, as well as a bevy of astonishing puppets breathing life into creatures great and small. It promises to be an extravagantly beautiful recount of the tale of scientific visionary Charles Darwin’s voyage on the HMS Beagle in The Wider Earth.

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With its mix of classic and contemporary works, whimsical trips to the happiest of theatrical places and contemplation of differing opinions, the 2016 season promises to be all sorts of engagement. 3, 5 and 8 Play Packages are available now. Though if you are feeling adventurous, you could always all in to purchase the ultimate 10 Play Package!

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