It’s 1995, wrapped in a fury of cigarette smoke sits Patricia Highsmith (Phyllis Logan), pounding at her typewriter. Now a recluse, Highsmith is tucked away in the Swiss alps, soon to be disturbed by an unwanted guest. What unravels to the audience is a psychological game of cat and mouse between Highsmith and Edward Ridgeway (Calum Finlay), sent from a New York publishing house to persuade Highsmith to write another Ripley novel.
Joanna Murray-Smith, the writer behind Switzerlandnotes, ‘Highsmith was deeply unlikeable, nasty, mean, cruel and narcissistic’. A play in one act, Murray-Smith brings Highsmith’s fiery tongue to life. Tantalizing insults shoot from her mouth, spite leaks from her pores and the audience lap it up. The dark humor employed by Murray-Smith is wholly successful, the audience leave stunned by the endless streams of Highsmith’s wit, taking pleasure in her capacity to deliver such hideously brilliant lines. Phyllis Logan’s portrayal of Highsmith is nothing short of extraordinary, the resting fury is set in her face from the first scene enables the audience to become engrossed in her character. Even though Highsmith is deeply unlikeable, a racist and anti-Semite, Phyllis Logan exposes the tormented and fractured nature of Highsmith and secures the audience as an accomplice for the writer. For despite her exterior façade, Highsmith was a figure who learned to put up a guard against the atrocities the world had to offer. Highsmith’s mother attempted her abortion by drinking turpentine, she was sexually abused when still a child and grew up with a physical hatred for her stepfather. Highsmith’s fascination with the extremities of the human nature stem from her twisted childhood, resulting in both her fiction and her ability to repress her more positive emotions. Through Logan, the audience receive an insight into the writers anguished and isolated life.
Hiding away in Switzerland from people, her insecurities surrounding her success but most importantly pesky publishing interns. But Edward Ridgeway is not what he seems, from what first appears as a one-dimensional stock character, Calum Finlay’s Ridgeway taps into Highsmith’s anxieties and unfolds to be a representation of Ripley. Initially timid and cowardly, Ridgeway grows to be intimidating and manipulative, much like Highsmith herself. Thus, Highsmith is haunted by her most famous creation, much like many literary giants, Ripley has his way with his author, and Ridgeway with the audience. How will this game of cat and mouse end?
Written by Sarena Moss.
Switzerland is a fictional narrative which follows renowned author Patricia Highsmith (Phyllis Logan), who wrote books such as Strangers on a Train, The Price of Salt (more widely known as Carol), and The Talented Mr. Ripley. It is 1995, she is living in the secluded Swiss Alps with only cats and snails for company, when her American publisher sends a young employee, Edward Ridgeway (Calum Finlay), to attempt to convince her to write one more Ripley novel. However, as the play progresses, it becomes apparent that this is not his only motivation for his visit.
Joanna Murray-Smith’s writing is sharp, witty and darkly funny, entering Highsmith’s psyche and bringing her to life in a way that seems to ring true to how she was described by those who knew her. The play takes the form and tropes of a classic thriller— a mysterious stranger, a secluded setting, the pointed introduction of a deadly murder weapon— and gives us something much deeper, which deals with questions of authorship and legacy. Highsmith’s anti-social cynicism is pitched against Edward’s hapless charm in a way that makes their back and forth truly enjoyable to watch and listen to and keeps the audience chuckling even in the play’s darker moments. The tonal shift that takes place over the three distinct acts, marked by the ending of each day and the beginning of a new, is stylised yet subtle, as is the shifts in the characters and their dynamic. Director Lucy Bailey delivers something more than your typical thriller on the stage, playing out a subtle game of cat and mouse in which you can’t decide who is going to deliver the killing blow, a set-up which allows the play’s final twist to be truly shocking.
Designer William Dudley’s box set, largely based on Highsmith’s actual Swiss home, lends the production an atmosphere of claustrophobia, with a large collection of weapons rather sinisterly lining the walls, adding to the looming sense of dread which creeps in as the play progresses. The use of the window at the back wall, a frame through which we seem to glimpse the characters in some of their pivotal moments, makes each scene change eerie and tense, each slow ascent and descent of the stairs marked by this middle point. This atmosphere is helped along by Mic Pool’s unsettling sound design which combines score, sound affect and even South Pacific to great effect, creating an overbearing atmosphere of tension, and bringing the outside in to what could be a limiting setting.
Phyllis Logan is excellent. She takes the rollercoaster part of Patricia Highsmith in her stride, delivering sudden and frequent emotional shifts whilst hardly ever leaving the stage during the 1 hour 40 running time, sans interval. Despite being a more than somewhat unlikable character, she pulls the audience in, and manages to be both funny and sympathetic amidst her many tirades against America, literary culture and happiness. There are moments of vulnerability and hostility in equal measure, and both are enjoyable to watch.
At the opening, it seems like it may be hard for Calum Finlay to keep up with such a powerful performance, but he finds his feet early on and delivers a lot of the play’s comedy as an over-eager all-American orphan. His character’s metamorphosis towards the sinister is handled deftly, and feels so natural that the marked difference in him by the play’s final scene doesn’t feel as jarring and contrived as it might.
As a duo, they play off each other well and keep up a pace and rhythm that stops the play from feeling long or dragged out despite its lack of intermission. This is definitely the right decision for this play, as a break in the action definitely would have detracted from Bailey’s finely orchestrated build-up of tension which slowly and stiflingly takes over the intimate venue of the Ambassador’s theatre.
Switzerland is dark, funny, enthralling and even moving. It’s a stirring insight into Highsmith that will make you want to know everything you can about the author. Well worth going to see before it closes in early January.
Written by Meghan Hain.