With Patricia Highsmith’s infamy as a master of literary suspense and psychological thrillers, playwright Joanna Murray-Smith and director Paige Rattray had big shoes to fill when adapting the writer’s lonely death into a thrilling script and showcasing it through the stories of two in depth characters.
Joanna Murray-Smith’s text focuses on the last days of Patricia Highsmith’s (Andrea Moor) life as she battles with the realities of her past, present and the inevitable end of her future. Murray-Smith takes the 1990s era and location surrounding her death and presents a fictional scenario in which the inexperienced and seemingly awkward Edward Ridgeway (Matthew Backer) visits Highsmith to get her to sign a contract from her publishers in New York for a final installment of her Ripley novels.
Set in Switzerland, the work is told from Highsmith’s secluded home in the mid 1990s, undoubtedly inspired by the writer’s true death in 1995. When Ridgeway’s visit drags unwelcome memories of America and influences from New York into her living room Highsmith’s settled lifestyle is sent into a spin. The writing is rich in its context, construction and use of bitter, back-and-forth conversation. Playwright Murray-Smith follows in Highsmith’s psychological thriller footsteps, producing a chilling chase between the two focal characters full of assertion and persuasion from start to finish. Danger is introduced early on and progresses consistently throughout the production. Despite its high stakes and difficult discussions, Murray-Smith fuses elegant language and witty conversation effortlessly. The dialogue is filled with grit and wit as Highsmith and Ridgeway are pushed throughout the space and to the edge of their comfort zones.
The two protagonists do well to sell their perception of themselves, but more importantly to also read each other in impressive depth after only having met what seems like minutes before. Within the first half of the work the two take turns profiling one another; Highsmith characterising Ridgeway through his appearance, disposition and upbringing, and Ridgeway categorising Highsmith through her reputation and biased monologues. While Ridgeway revels in his dense knowledge of his hero’s life’s work, Highsmith cockily and confidently uses her ability to create characters to analyse Ridgeway immediately. In a battle that is equal parts philosophical as it is hilarious, the two are just as determined to portray their desired identities as they are to counteract one other’s confidence. Moor and Backer are a faultless duo, both constructing immense depth and complexity to each of their respective characters. Perfectly cast, their sharing of the stage ranges from tentative and respectful, to domineering and dangerous. Of course, being a thriller, there is a twist, which only pushes both of the characters’ journeys further from safety and challenges the actors to expand themselves as the show reaches its climax.
The two-hander explores understandings of what it means to be a writer, differences in age and experience, and most importantly, how one’s upbringing and family influences how we exist. We learn that Highsmith endured an unhappy childhood, but more importantly that she blames her upbringing for both her disappointment with the Western literary industry, and her problematic views of the world (especially in relation to today’s standards). Highsmith shows us, however, that she also uses her misfortune filled childhood as fuel for her success as a writer, and as a way to feel empathy towards her murderous Ripley character. Likewise, we are told that Ridgeway grew up unhappily, however his character is unexpected to the audience and Highsmith alike.
Rattray’s direction was clear and clean, however the choice in stage layout and space activation was problematic. While the set construction and Anthony Spinaze’s design was elegantly imagined and beautifully crafted, the open and airy use of space lacked the claustrophobic essence that loomed over the plot. The staging and positioning of the long thin set left both actors to forcefully fill a dauntingly wide and open set through voice or gesture. The two were often positioned at either end of the set, rendering the few moments where one would exit or swap places with the other a relief. Spinaze’s design was sleek and appropriate for the writer’s home and the play’s progression, and Ben Hughes’ lighting design provided a small flicker of warmth and comfort in an otherwise hostile and foreboding story. Steve Toumlin’s ominous and powerful sound design and music fused all of the work’s design elements together as perfectly as the two protagonists were written and performed.
– Written by Rhumer Diball May 28th 2016
SWITZERLAND PRESENTED BY QUEENSLAND THEATRE COMPANY
THURS 20 MAY – SUN 26 JUN 2016. BRISBANE.
Originally Published for My City Life.
Photo credit Rob Maccoll.