ASB Waterfront Theatre, 138 Halsey St, Wynyard Quarter, Auckland

19/09/2023 - 07/10/2023

Production Details

By Joanna Murray-Smith
Directed by Sarah Goodes

Auckland Theatre Company
Presenting Partner MiNDFOOD

A pitch-perfect thriller, underpinned with cunning twists and a knockout performance by the great Sarah Peirse.

“The past sits on our shoulder taunting us. Challenging us. To murder it.”

She was best-selling and she was brilliant. With The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith once created one of the greatest literary characters of the 20th century: terrifying, enigmatic, complex, human. A bit like her really.

These days, she’s living as a recluse in the Swiss Alps. She’s done with writing, having firmly slammed the door on the Dead White Males of the American literary establishment. She fills her days with cats and show tunes, chain-smoking as she nurses her ever-growing collection of antique weapons.

But, now, there is a young man standing in her study. He’s been sent by her publisher to convince her to pen one last Tom Ripley novel. And he’s not going to take no for an answer.

What starts as a simple game of cat and mouse becomes a breathtaking battle of wits as Highsmith and her visitor interrogate identity and the art of creation. Crackling with intelligence and bristling with tension, this enthralling meta-thriller is a white-knuckle ride to the finish.

From Honour to The Female of the Species, playwright Joanna Murray-Smith has dazzled Auckland audiences with her robust plotting and lacerating wit. As it dances with the very idea of fiction, Switzerland proves itself as a truly novel experience.

“I saw Sarah Peirse originate this role at the Sydney Opera House and her Highsmith was astonishing. I knew I had to share this riveting play and Sarah’s extraordinary performance with Auckland in a production of our own.” – Jonathan Bielski

ASB Waterfront Theatre
19 September – 7 October 2023
Times vary

Contains strong language and offensive views, including racism and antisemitism, and smoking.

Presenting Partner MiNDFOOD

Sarah Peirse as Patricia Highsmith
Jarred Blakiston as Edward
Samuel Phillips, Assistant Director
Michael Scott-Mitchell, Designer
Nick Schlieper, Lighting Designer
Steve Francis, Composer & Sound Designer
Emma Aubin, Props & Costumes Manager

Theatre ,

1 hour 35 minutes, no interval

Tension heightens so we can never relax

Review by Renee Liang 03rd Oct 2023

Another playwright once told me that a play’s success should be measured, not on reviews or box office, but by what occurred in the foyer afterwards: he wanted to see people still discussing what happened. By this marker, Switzerland is a success.

ATC’s final production for the year brings Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith’s much-lauded script to Auckland audiences for the first time. The hometown connection is lead actor Sarah Peirse, who originated the role in Sydney in 2014 and returns, paired with fellow local Jarred Blakiston.

To start: Switzerland is fiction, a writer’s fantasy. But like all good fictions it’s grounded in truth: in this case the real life story of Patricia Highsmith, American crime novelist (best known for the Ripley series). If her Wikipedia article is to be believed, she was somewhat of a poster child for misunderstood lesbian alcoholic who poured her life trauma into her pathological, compelling characters.

Catnip to another clever writer, then. Especially as, at the time of this work’s premiere, Highsmith had been dead nearly a decade and therefore could not respond.

We meet the fictional version of Highsmith towards the end of her life. Fed up with predatory publishers and hiding from the expectations of her readers, she has retreated to a secluded community in Switzerland to be alone with her cats and her expanding collection of classic weaponry.  Here, in a set dripping with guns, knives and luxurious Euro design features, she meets her final adversary – Edward, a young man with an agenda.

A rule of theatre is that if a weapon is shown on set, it needs to be used – but I’m getting ahead of myself. Also, I promise, no spoilers.

Most of the creative team are the originals from Sydney: Sarah Goodes directs, while Michael Scott-Mitchell’s set and costume design is all brickwork and dancing flames – luxury without warmth. Highsmith contrasts in her dowdy at-home wear – not that this stops her from commanding the space. A spiral staircase, on which characters enter and exit, hints at danger unseen above, and a library is filled with real books. But the standout feature is the polished black floor which mirrors every movement of the actors: a metaphor for the plot in which every action has multiple reflections and interpretations. Nick Schlieper’s lighting design perfectly complements the set while Steve Francis’ cinematic score heightens the tension so we can never relax.

Described in the show publicity as “a calculated game of cat-and-mouse”, the realisation comes too late that the mouse is, in fact, the audience and the playwright has been – pardon the pun – playing with us the whole time.  This isn’t to say the game isn’t great fun: Sarah Peirse’s Patricia Highsmith is a woman of lacerating wit, and her stream of one-liners draw plenty of chuckles from the audience. A particular hit with the Sunday matinee crowd was a series of lines on “deluded young people”.

Blakiston – who, going back to costume, looks mighty fine in a perfectly cut suit – is compelling to watch as Edward. For the first third of the play he is mostly a punching bag as the unwelcome stranger who is trying to close an impossible deal. But it is Peirse who is deservedly the star, turning Murray-Smith’s finely honed script into a series of missiles. There are plenty of knives on stage, but the real weapons are the words.

This is a piece with plenty to digest for writers and readers. In Switzerland the playwright dives deep into a writer’s mind and explores their impulses, their politics, their pettiness. Murray-Smith walks the tightrope between showing us her characters and showing us her own hand (and mind?) behind the screen; occasionally she teeters and we see the strings. There is the suggestion, perhaps uncomfortably close to truth, that writers’ deepest relationships are with characters rather than real humans. Many can relate to the Pygmalion moment: relishing having the power of life and death over our characters before falling so madly in love that we start to lose control of them.

Control? Yes, ultimately this work is all about control. Highsmith and Edward circle each other, shifting power, tossing each other control of the plot. But who’s really in charge, moving the mirrors, opening up box after box of lies so the audience can never be sure what is truth, or indeed reality? Whose point of view are we really seeing? If Edward is a character in Highsmith’s work, and Highsmith is really just a character in someone else’s play, then who are we?

The writer and the director pull off the illusion at the last minute and the blindsided audience shuffle out of the darkened theatre into the light, there to debate what actually happened, and chew over the deliciousness of that dialogue.  Perhaps Murray-Smith intended us to glimpse those strings after all.


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