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Theatre Review: Switzerland just sparkles

Switzerland is the final play of Auckland Theatre Company’s thirtieth season and written by Joanna Murray-Smith. It’s a fictionalised story based around Patricia Highsmith, an American novelist famous for her psychological thrillers and in particular several featuring career criminal Tom Ripley. 

As the play opens, Highsmith (Sarah Peirse) is living in retirement in the Swiss alps surrounded by her books and a self-imposed loneliness. 

A man arrives, he’s late, and she berates him. His name is Edward (Jarred Blakiston), he is a representative of her publisher and is there to ‘encourage’ her to sign a contract to write one last Ripley novel. She however is adamant that won’t happen. 

Over the course of the first evening, she chides and bullies Edward but he stands his ground, and though initially reticent and a little overawed by her, he slowly grows in confidence while also gaining her trust.

Eventually, they begin a collaboration of sorts on what the central plot of a new Ripley novel would be. Patricia offers Edward a choice. If by morning he can think of a clever and original way to kill one of the characters, she will sign the contract. 

This is a very sophisticated and intelligent script with sharp dialogue and a great many funny lines which is surprising for a thriller. The pace and tension are perfectly balanced and there are plot twists that make this play very edgy. 

Patricia is an abrasive curmudgeon who is feisty and something of a luddite, yet shockingly clever and witty.  She has a depressingly bleak view of humanity and believes that we are all fascinated by murder and have within us a desire to kill.  Her own proclivity for murder is borne out by a large collection of swords and guns displayed on her walls. She refers to them reverentially as ‘art’ and the equal of anything from Van Gogh. 

In this role, Peirse is simply mesmerising with a masterful command of her character and indeed the play. It is almost impossible not to be drawn to her as she speaks or shuffles around the stage. She bring a steeliness and strength to Patricia, yet, also manages to hint at the vulnerability that lies behind all the bombast and cynicism. 

Edward may seem the opposite to Patricia with his diffidence, earnestness and youthful energy. Over time, this changes and Edward is seen to be just as cunning and even as bleak as Patricia. Edward therefore needs to be played very carefully, especially in the transformation of his temperament as the story progresses. Blakiston was clearly up for the job. He managed to be the perfect balance to Peirse and the interplay between them was delightfully entertaining and at times anxiety inducing – the right combination for a nail-biter of this type. 

I must make mention of the sumptuous set decorated with brick walls, a roaring fire, bookshelves and a spiral staircase. Centre stage was a sofa and chair and to the right a gorgeous writing desk.  When combined with moose enhancing lighting and soundscape, the plush surroundings provided the perfect backdrop to the battle of wills between the characters.

Switzerland is a sparkling, unforgettable, triumphant theatrical experience which is a superb way to round off Auckland Theatre Company’s thirtieth year.

Photo credit – Anna Benhak

Before you go, why not listen to the interview Sarah Peirse did with Andrew Whiteside about the play:

SWITZERLAND BY JOANNA MURRAY-SMITH

September 19 – October 7, 2023

ASB Waterfront Theatre, Wynyard Quarter, Auckland

Tickets and info  or call 0800 ATC TIX

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