Review by Rhys Tarling
Patricia Highsmith, the famous American author of dozens of psychologically dark stories, one of which was adapted by Alfred Hitchcock and another was the acclaimed Carol, gets her own disturbing little story about facing the last days of her death, in the new Black Swan production Switzerland. For a Black Swan production it’s quiet and small, but, befitting a story centring on a famous author, the words are as rich and textured as any expensive set.
For all of its 100 or so minutes, it’s a back-and-forth between two characters, Patricia Highsmith (Jenny Davis), and an errand boy from a major publishing company in New York, Edward Ridgeway (Giuseppe Rotondella). An earnest and eager Ridgeway has to convince a pricklier-than-a-porcupine Highsmith to write one last novel about her most famous character Ripley. Highsmith doesn’t want to.
The stakes and goals are simple, but it opens up a multitude of revealing, rhythmic dialogue exchanges. Highsmith, morbid and fascinated by the grislier side of life, only takes an interest in the young Ridgeway when she correctly guesses he’s an orphan. “I knew it! You have that look of someone at a party who has no one to talk to!” she says with pure delight. It’s impossibly cruel and funny as hell, and Jenny Davis walks that tightrope throughout all of Switzerland with such style because she understands that this Highsmith, for all her wit and intelligence, isn’t cool but lonely and sad. Rotondella plays Ridgeway as a guileless young lad who walks into Highsmith’s verbal traps with starry eyes. You almost feel sorry for him, until, as Switzerland deepens and twists, you get the feeling he’s playing some kind of vaguely sinister three-dimensional chess with the famous writer. The performances are note-perfect, and they are given great material by writer Joanna Murray-Smith.
The set of Highsmith’s writing room designed by Bruce McKinven is sparse and dreary, save for her writing desk which is bathed in sepia light (lighting designer Lucy Birkinshaw) and cluttered with papers and books. Without a spoken word, we intuitively get that the only time this writer is truly alive is when she’s banging away at the typewriter. When Highsmith reveals her collection of old weapons, the deeply sad set bares its monstrous teeth and the tension never dissipates. Just brilliant, subtle work from McKinven and director Lawrie Cullen-Tait.
If you’re going to see just one play this year, make it Switzerland. It crackles with remarkable insight, humour, and tension.