music / Canberra Symphony Orchestra, ACTEWAGL Llewellyn Three, Llewellyn Theatre, July 18. Reviewed by GRAHAM McDONALD
“SWITZERLAND” is a psychological mystery: why did experience-hungry thriller writer Patricia Highsmith (Karen Vickery) entomb herself in the land of chocolate and cuckoo clocks?
A young emissary from her publisher (Lachlan Ruffy) visits Highsmith’s alpine mausoleum to coax one final masterpiece from the stalled novelist and this sparks an unlikely battle of wills between an ambitious ingenue and a jaded martinet.
“Switzerland” is genuinely spooky and unsettling, with the abundance of blades and guns festooned on the walls creating an uneasy certainty that one of them will be used. But why, and by who?
Jordan Best’s direction emphasises the comedy in the script while retaining the chills. But Highsmith’s bitterness and isolation was muted by the jocularity: when Highsmith rattled off a xenophobic rant, the audience roared as though it was all in good fun, rather than a mark of Highsmith’s isolating misanthropy.
Vickery’s performance venerated Highsmith’s courage and accomplishment, but glossed over the subtle tragedy of her withdrawal from the world. When Highsmith is bribed with a care package of American soup tins from her publisher this felt like the haughty demand of an arbitrary ruler, rather than pathetic nostalgia for an abandoned home.
Ruffy was powerful as the uncertain but ambitious young man thrust into the company of a celebrity who can dismiss him on a whim. He spent most of the play watching her with an ambassador’s neutral face, but with enough out-of-place moments to keep the audience guessing about his real intentions.
“Switzerland” is atmospheric and tense, a tribute to Patricia Highsmith that thrusts the writer into one of her own thrillers, and the effective double act of Vickery and Ruffy will keep the audience guessing to the satisfying ending.