Hotly pursuing my 2017 resolution to read more plays, I’ve chivvied out a play by Joanna Murray-Smith, perhaps the most produced Australian playwright. But then there’s that David Williamson. But surely she’s the most produced female playwright. Good on her, I say.

(Reading Plays Series #3)

Switzerland is a short tight play, a psychological thriller, which is difficult to do well in the theatre. It has been produced all over the world, and because it is about an American writer has enjoyed some success in the US. The Queensland Theatre Company’s 2016 production of it has just been nominated for a Mathilda Award for best production.

I mention the Mathilda Awards quite heartily here because, in this very same category, for the first time ever, a theatre company I helped put into existence, JUTE, has been nominated for its co-production Bastard Territory, which a good friend wrote (Stephen Carleton) and very good friend performed in (Suellen Maunder). I was curious to see what Bastard Territory‘s competition was. I shall get around to reading the other further two nominations shortly.

You remember The Talented Mr.Ripley, right?  Most people do. It was written by a prolific female writer, Patricia Highsmith—by many accounts a difficult, reclusive woman, overtly racist, passionately misogynistic, macabre and plain mean. I did not realise she wrote a whole series of novels featuring that irresistible villain, Tom Ripley. She spent the last years of her life in quite sullen isolation in Switzerland, and hence the title of Joanna Murray-Smith’s play, Switzerland, which refers as much to Highsmith’s profession and state of mind as to the geographic location.

In the play Switzerland, Highsmith’s Swiss retreat is interrupted by the arrival of one Edward Ridgeway, an emissary from her American publisher. He has brought her a contract that he insists she must sign. The contract asks her to complete another in her Tom Ripley series. And therein lies the rub. She refuses. She does everything she can to get Edward Ridgeway out of her house, threatening all sorts of violence. But he is stubborn and deftly evades her barbs. After a time she challenges young Ridgeway to construct a new plot featuring Tom Ripley. When he does come up with a fascinating plot, she starts to warm to the idea. She even signs the contract. It all seems to be set. But something is quite amiss, and the audience gets the sneaking suspicion something is just not right with Edward Ridgeway….

Ah! The stuff of thrillers.

Switzerland is a simple play. Three Acts. Straightforward narrative, well, ostensibly, and what seemed to me—at least on the page—quite short. The twist, the real comeuppance, is not heard at all until the top of Act 3, an act of just 7 very swift pages.  Act 3, as you know, is traditionally reserved for the denouement, that is to say, the wrapping up of things. It’s like a damn footnote to the story.  It’s not usual to have not only the major plot change happen in Act 3, but also the crisis and the climax and the denouement. Bugger me, but that’s exactly what is in Act 3 of Switzerland. huh. I’ll be.

The writing is very witty, and the barbed repartee is lethal. Patricia is drawn as an unredeemable character—relentlessly nasty and jaded— until Edward manages to find her weaknesses. It’s catastrophic for her, and absolutely dark fun for the audience to see her pause.

This is, we realise by the end of the play, not a straightforward narrative at all. It manages to keep us hoodwinked into thinking it is for most of the play before it plunges us head-first into metaphoric and theatrical gold. I love the idea of Switzerland being used as a powerful symbol of Highsmith’s writing and personal life—her personal Switzerland.

If I have a criticism of it is that it is too short. The Act 3 reveal is crazy short. I cannot help but think there cold be more made of it than there is. But perhaps that’s the lesson; a play needs to only be long enough to press home the point. Then it needs to stop.

And what about that quote from the play? About a true writer being impartial, in the neutral zone like Switzerland? Do you think a writer is like a journalist—just the facts, ma’am—and anything else is unethical?  Or is it more like, ‘allow the audience to see both sides‘?  I certainly know a lot of writers who have a drum to beat, and I certainly don’t mind that they do.

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