Switzerland. By Joanna Murray-Smith. Directed by Jordan Best. Pigeonhole Theatre. Courtyard Studio. Canberra Theatre Centre. Until July 14. Bookings: canberratheatrecentre.com.au or 62752700.
It is Michael Sparks’s thoughtfully designed set with its idiosyncratic collection of curios that first catches the attention on entering the Courtyard Studio. Assorted knives, swords and guns hang from the walls of the Swiss home of reclusive crime writer Patricia Highsmith (Karen Vickery). The writer of the gripping Ripley murder mysteries enters, a forceful presence, determined in her stride, daunting in her stare.
Then comes Edward Ridgeway (Lachlan Ruffy), with American pumpkin pie, boy-next-door looks and an unassuming manner. He enters the lionesses’ den, a lamb led to the slaughter, or so it appears in the opening scene of Joanna Murray Smith’s psychological thriller, Switzerland.
Ridgeway has come where others have failed, to convince the cantankerous, difficult Highsmith to sign a contract to write a final Ripley novel.
The scene is set for a battle of wills, with Murray-Smith’s brilliantly wielded weaponry of words, sharp as the lethal thrust of a knife from Highsmith, and smooth as the glimmering edge of a ceremonial sword from Ridgeway.
The battle with tennis-match tactics delivers powerful serves of caustic disdain from Highsmith, countered by a subtle slice of argument from Ridgeway.
Jordan Best, assisted by Matthew Webster’s composition and Cynthia Jolley Rogers’ lighting design, directs with gripping edge-of-the seat precision, as the cut and thrust of this cat-and-mouse game builds in tension and anticipation with the prize being the signing of the publishing contract.
With each joust of conquest or capitulation, Murray-Smith cleverly reveals the real-life cruelty of Highsmith’s childhood abandonment, her misogyny and racism, her self-imposed exile and her stoic survival as an independent woman of conviction, raging against the forces of mediocrity and dullness. Ridgeway counters Highsmith’s aggression with disarming intuition.
Like Highsmith, Murray-Smith takes a surgical literary knife to the psyche, assisted by Best’s insightful and purposeful direction of her actors.
Ninety per cent of the success of a performance is said to be in the casting, and Best has two superb actors to not only bring the characters to life, but to keep the audience transfixed as the relationship twists and turns.
Vickery breathes fire and fury into the complex psyche of Highsmith as she confronts her fragile mortality. Ruffy captures the essence of mystery, the indefinable character of perplexing contradiction.
Together, their rapport is dynamic, their timing perfect and their performances faultless.
Pigeonhole Theatre has secured its place as a company of excellence on the Canberra theatre scene, and this production of Joanna Murray-Smith’s Switzerland is already the hottest ticket in town. If at first you don’t succeed, just keep on trying to get a ticket. This thrilling production and display of acting is just too good to miss.