‘Switzerland’ was intriguing.
Villanova Players Theatre Company took their audiences to new heights in their recent production ‘Switzerland’. Set in the Swiss Alps, the ailing reclusive crime writer, Patricia Highsmith, is visited by a young emissary from her New York publisher who is desperate for the final instalment of her best-selling Mr Ripley series. What initially seems to be an amusing game of wit and wiles soon turns to something more disturbing as the game becomes a cat and mouse dance to the death.
Highsmith, the Texan-born thriller writer on which ‘Switzerland’ is based, was known as a ‘difficult’ woman. She loved knives and guns, was extremely outspoken, a racist, a master at put-downs with a tendency to abuse, and although gay herself, was quick with the homophobic slurs. But, despite all this, she could also be devastatingly funny. Towards the end, Highsmith preferred to be a loner, living in self-imposed exile in Switzerland where she bred snails and listened to show tunes.
Joanna Murray-Smiths’ ‘Switzerland’ is one of her best works, a dark and serious piece with a hefty dose of humour and irony about how disagreeable writers are, how they fall in love with their characters, and how often they find the world inside their head more compelling than the world around them. It mimics the suspense of a Highsmith tale in its exploration of the darkness of the human psyche.
This production, presented by Villanova Players, is an improved version of the play. Originally written for two actors, director Bruce Parr has split the Highsmith role so we see the younger (past) and the more mature (present) versions of the same person, adding another layer of complexity to an already intricate script. There is more emphasis on humour, rather than the thriller elements in the early moments of this production, with tension not being a key factor until later. Parr has also made the directorial decision to move away from the naturalistic approach usually afforded this play to one that encompasses a pared-down functional set, and extremely stylised delivery of both speech and movement from the performers. These decisions, although a little surprising, in the beginning, do work within the context of this production.
The staging works well with an appropriate visual of a snowy Swiss scene projected on the backdrop as the audience enters. Lighting by Rod Thompson is effective, and particular moments benefitted well from a well-placed spotlight. There were a number of sharp music sound effects which detracted from dramatic moments, however, the technical design was largely effective. Only essential props were used to fit with the minimalistic staging, and although this was appropriate, it was disappointing that the peanut butter jar was obviously empty, the decanter used several times contained no liquid, and the knife referenced in the play more than once as having a “steel mirror finish” looked notably inauthentic.
This production was originally planned pre-COVID, meaning there was limited rehearsal time and actors were given access to a script on stage. The cast must be commended (in particular Lucy Moxon) for the minimal use of these scripts, allowing the characters to shine through, and the pace to barely falter.
Maria Plumb as the mature Patricia Highsmith gave a strong performance, using her experience and considerable vocal talents to portray the acerbic cynic with ease, obviously relishing the chance to portray such a complex intelligent woman. Most of the play’s outrageous humour comes from this character, and the thrust and parry of the dialogue with her publishers’ representative, Edward Ridgeway, was a delight. However, Plumb’s American accent did sometimes lapse.
Nicholas Sayers had the difficult task of bringing life to a character that changes significantly over the course of the play. He portrayed the naïve Ridgeway with energy and childlike charm and really comes into his own as Ridgeway displays a more dangerous persona. Sayer looked supremely comfortable on stage, and also demonstrated his skill as a singer.
As the younger version of Highsmith, Lucy Moxon delivered a strong vocal and physical performance with excellent accent work. Her non-verbal journey in reaction to dialogue between Plumb and Sayers was spot on.
Overall, ‘Switzerland’ is a solid production of an excellent script with a surprising twist. It does contain a fair amount of strong language, and at a running time of around two hours, would have benefitted with having an interval. If you need refreshments, it is advisable to bring water with you as there are no drinks available for purchase.
‘Switzerland’ performed for one weekend only at the Ron Hurley Theatre in Seven Hills. For more information about Villanova Players Theatre Company, visit their website.
Photography by Christopher Sharman.