Theatre review: Switzerland, Ensemble Theatre

Patricia Highsmith is all the rage at the moment, so it's a good time to stage Joanna Murray-Smith's play about the writer.
Switzerland. A theatre set of a writer's study with grey concrete walls, a two seater leather backed couch, a wooden coffee table and downstage a cluttered desk with a middle aged white woman working at a typewriter. Behind her a young white man has come through the door and looks nervous.

With the release of Netflix’s Ripley, Patricia Highsmith’s most popular character has once again been revived in the popular imagination. It has been more than 60 years since he was first portrayed on screen by Alain Delon – his enduring popularity perhaps suggesting that there is more of an appetite for psychopathic protagonists than popular culture has provided in the interim. In any event, this is good timing for Ensemble Theatre’s production of Switzerland, Joanna Murray-Smith’s play about Highsmith. 

The play opens in Highsmith’s Swiss chalet where Edward Ridgeway, a young employee of Highsmith’s New York publishing house has travelled to meet her. His assignment is to get the famously acerbic Highsmith to sign a contract for one final Ripley novel. He expects the task to be a difficult one – the previous emissary returned to the US not only having failed, but also having been threatened by Highsmith with a knife. 

Toni Scanlan gives a terrific performance as Highsmith. It is a difficult role to play – by turns witty, biting, misanthropic, tragic and bigoted, Scanlan manages to find an underlying humanity that keeps the character sympathetic. Or at least as sympathetic as possible; Murray-Smith addresses Highsmith’s xenophobia by portraying it as a kind of edgelord posturing, which for a self-described ‘Jew hater’ is perhaps optimistic. 

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The problem is that the early part of the play lacks narrative drive. It is hard to be too interested in whether or not Ridgeway is going to get Highsmith to sign a book contract and the only other source of tension is the possibility that she will attack him with a knife, which perhaps isn’t credible enough to sustain the audience’s interest. The plot does pick up, but overall the play seems longer than its 90 minutes. Even so, there are interesting themes and Scanlan’s performance alone is worth the price of admission. 

Switzerland by Joannah Murray-Smith 
Ensemble Theatre, 78 McDougall Street, Kirribilli, NSW
Director: Shaun Rennie
Set and Lighting Designer: Veronique Benett
Costume Designer: Kelsey Lee
Composer and Sound Designer: Kelly Ryall
Dialect Coach: Linda Nicholls-Gidley
Intimacy and Fight Director: Nigel Poulton
Stage Manager: Lauran Tulloh
Assistant Stage Manager: Jemima Greenwood
Costume Supervisor: Renata Beslik

Cast: Laurence Boxhall, Toni Scanlan

Tickets: $25-$88

Switzerland will be performed until 8 June 2024.

Ned Hirst is a lawyer and writer based in Sydney whose work has appeared in Overland, The Australian Law Journal and elsewhere. He tweets at @ned_hirst.