Razor sharp writing by Joanna Murray-Smith (featuring acerbic put downs), and bravura acting performances, are features of the brilliant two-hander Switzerland. The focus is the best-selling author of The Talented Mr Ripley, Patricia Highsmith, who is living as a recluse in the Swiss alps. She finds solace in her seclusion, her cats, her booze and her cigarettes, not to forget her somewhat sinister collection of guns and knives.
A brilliant writer, but bigoted and condescending, she is being prevailed upon by her New York publishing house to write one last Ripley adventure. So far she has rejected any and all such advances, but now she is visited by a young and green editor, who is hoping that his in-person appearance will help convince a terrifying Miss Highsmith to relent. Her disdain is immediate and she gives him his marching orders, but a cat and mouse game ensues and at various stages each has the upper hand. In Switzerland, Joanna Murray-Smith builds tension like the final chapters of one of Highsmith’s own thrillers.
Patricia Highsmith was born in Texas in 1921, the only child of feuding artist parents. She grew up to have a macabre sense of humour, a fascination with psychological disorders and plethora of controversial opinions. Her friends described her as stingy, neurotic and cantankerous. Her first novel, Strangers on a Train, was turned into a movie by Alfred Hitchcock. Her second, The Price of Salt, was a lesbian romance that defied 1950s conventions and sold almost a million copies. Highsmith created some of the greatest suspense novels in modern literature, writing dozens of works that would become notorious for their startling violence and unstable, morally ambiguous characters. She became best known for the Ripley series and its eponymous criminal hero: a seductive, amoral libertine who gets away with murder. Patricia Highsmith died in Switzerland in 1995. She was alone.
Put simply, Joanna Murray-Smith has created a masterwork – remarkably twisted and villainous, but oh so compelling. Sarah Peirse and Eamon Farren are luminous as the protagonists – she erudite and egotistical, he resilient and hiding a dark secret. I defy anyone who hasn’t seen it to pick where it is going.
The beauty, of course, is in the language and in the interchange of often warped thoughts, ideas and concepts. This is a power play par excellence. With a running time of 1 hour 40 minutes without interval, the action unfolds over two nights and three days. Switzerland is mighty clever, at times laugh aloud funny and utterly absorbing. Joanna Murray-Smith certainly knows how to lure an audience and hold us tightly in her grip. With such talent on display, that hold is even tighter.
Switzerland (tickets HERE) is playing at Southbank Theatre, The Sumner until 29th October.
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television