“A writer is alone. All alone and she decides to create a world…from the vapour of her imagination she creates people”
-Mr Ridgeway, Switzerland
Most people have the benefit of inhibiting a structured world, where their existence plods at a comfortable pace set by their work. You see them as early as 6.30 am on the trains, bleary eyed and short tempered, iphone in hand and walking shoes on their feet. You practically die in a stampede of them at 5pm on Hay and Murray St, eager to return to the comfort of their homes, to their meal plans, their Game of Thrones…to routine. They have always existed and for as long as we have mortgages, cubicles, internet and Ikea, perhaps they always will. They have their dreams, aspirations and hopes that they tuck in to bed each night and maybe in some pivotal moment of their life, they fulfill them before archiving them away in their minds, to replay for posterity before they drift away to sleep.
You probably relate to some part of what I have written and I would like to assure you that this is normal. It is what I hoped for. In fact, I will be so bold to suggest it is what we all hope for in one way or another. To know that we aren’t the only ones groping feebly at cosmic straws trying to make sense of the world. We want ourselves and our attempts at living to be understood by those around us, for in this mutual understanding lies intimacy. Closeness.
This is the gift bestowed upon the author. The gift to communicate, to express and explain. The ability to clad complex feelings in flesh and bone, on paper in words. Some of these feelings come clamouring to them like pigeons in a park as they extend a friendly hand and ask you about your day. Others come from a deeper, darker, more personal space. Cold and painstakingly coaxed out of their hidey hole like snails hiding in garden beds. These are the feelings of the author “given away to their characters” (Murray Smith, Switzerland).
To me, this was the heart of Murray-Smith’s play Switzerland, a biographical account of sorts, depicting a fictional moment in the life of renowned crime author Patricia Highsmith. Set in 1995 in the Swiss Alps, the reclusive crime writer, is visited by a genial young man from her New York publisher, sent to convince her to write the final instalment of her best-selling Mr Ripley series. His visit stirs the hills to life, but it certainly isnt a tune you would expect!
Having read others accounts of Switzerland’s famed protagonist, I am willing to wager my meagre pay that the real Patricia Highsmith would have spat in my immigrant, Muslim, Australian face before conceding to any observation I offered regarding her craft. She was, after all, remembered by her colleagues as a deeply racist and caustic woman with little social ability and a penchant for the perverse. In fact, Otto Penzler, crime writer and co-author of Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection described her as “a mean, hard, cruel, unlovable, unloving person”. Ouch!
I am not here to draw up excuses for the inherent bigotry of the protagonist of this piece. She was a product of her time, her childhood and her trauma. She was, as Murray Smith wrote, simply a woman whose “past sat on (her shoulder) taunting her”. Patricia Highsmith was what she was and through the genius of Murray Smith’s writing and Davis’ acting, I was made to feel as uncomfortable, unnerved and perplexed as if she were standing right before me, yelling and smoking and flinging racially charged epithets left, right and centre.
The beauty of this play for me was several things. Davis’ oh so convincing portrayal of a racist, uncaring, glib Highsmith made me want to get up and yell obscenities at a ghost woman, long since buried. The passionate and sensitive manner in which Giuseppe Rotondella’s very handsome Mr Ridgeway plays equal parts “assistant” and psychoanalyst lends a softer, alternative reading of such a prickly character. Feeling alienated by Highsmith’s bigotry and at the same time relating to her sense of loneliness was incredibly conflicting and is, in my opinion, the mark of a well constructed theatrical piece.
Truth be told, we all live in fear of going out into a real world away from our carefully curated instagram feeds, our well structured timetables, our award winning crime novels because real life is complicated, badly laid out and beyond our control. We dont get to design or curate real life. Like the protagonist, we are petrified in some form by the real world. To live in the shadow of our former achievements, crippled by the fear of future mediocrity and being misunderstood in death- these are things that Patricia Highsmith grappled with in life; these are things most people grapple with from the richest Millionaire to the humblest checkout chick. And this is where Highsmith and I found a connection, our common neutral ground- our Switzerland is the human condition.
Switzerland is a Black Swan Theatre Company production, playing at the State Theatre till September 03. Tickets Available here.