One of Australia’s greatest contemporary playwrights, Joanna Murray-Smith, talks about ATC’s latest production of her play Switzerland, based on the renowned queer author Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr Ripley). Joanna discusses the dark character and working with Dame Helen Mirren on the upcoming film adaptation.
What inspired you to write Switzerland?
I saw a biography in a bookshop in L.A. of Highsmith, and it prompted a flood of memories of lying in bed with my mother before I could read and watching her read Highsmith. I was fascinated by the way she was so compelled and inside the world of the book. I was astonished by how these black-and-white patterns on the page could seduce someone so entirely. In my teens, I read The Highsmiths for myself and had the same experience. So I read the biography by Joan Schenkar and realised that this was not only one of the great writers of the 20th century but an absolutely theatrical character for the stage. That lit the fuse.
What fascinates you about Patricia Highsmith and the complexities of her character?
She was a repellent human being in many ways, and that is always interesting because the job of the writer is to make the audience understand why she is the way she is rather than simply judge her. As well as that, she was a master of psychological insight and drawn to the ambiguity of human beings; she didn’t romanticise people. She saw them in all their moral complexity. She understood the chasm between our private souls and our public faces, and she was brilliant at writing about that space. I was intrigued by someone who was so drawn to the dark and yet often enormously witty.
Which piece of Highsmith’s work has had the greatest impact on you and why?
Some of her short stories pack the same punch as The Talented Mr Ripley, but in a fraction of the pages. I’ve always been a great admirer of her ability to create a world for the reader and seduce them into it with such economy. She can build a world, draw you in, frighten, astonish, and satisfy you with great deftness. They’re not all good, but the best are brilliant.
Do you think it takes quite a dark mind to create a character like Ripley?
A very dark mind. Watch the play!
Do you think there are elements to Switzerland that will resonate with queer audiences?
I hope not. There are better queer role models in life than Highsmith!
When you finished writing Switzerland, what was your hope that audience members would take away from seeing the production?
Being happy that they paid a lot of money for a ticket! I want them to be taken out of their own lives for 95 minutes and seduced into a space more compelling than reality.
Is the Auckland production likely to be any different to the Sydney or Melbourne productions?
Well, it has a lot of the personnel of the previous seasons involved, including, of course, the astonishing partnership of Sarah Goodes directing and Sarah Peirse performing. The entire team is one of the best I have ever worked with, and Sarah Peirse is one of the greatest actors of her generation. Michael Scott Mitchell is once again designing. But there will be lots of New Zealand-based innovations as well, including the second actor, the venue, and other crew, so it will have its own character. Every production is different, even with some identical elements. In fact, every show is different within a season. Live theatre is always changing – a constant chameleon because the energy of the audience, as well as the cast, is different every show. The feeling in the room makes it a different play every night.
Switzerland is being adapted into a film starring Dame Helen Mirren. How has the process of working on the movie been for you to date?
So far, completely fantastic, which probably means it will be a disaster! I adored adapting the play. It was such fun knowing the characters so well from the get-go, and it was a thrill to “take them out” again and enjoy their company and create a few new adventures for them. I could probably spend the rest of my life just playing with Highsmith and Edward. They’re the best company a writer could have.
After sell-out seasons in Sydney and Melbourne, Auckland Theatre Company presents Switzerland. The fast-paced psychological thriller opens at the ASB Waterfront Theatre on September 19 until October 7.