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Review: Switzerland at the Ensemble Theatre

Review by Andrea Bunjamin

It is a dangerous endeavour to enter the minefield that is someone else's thoughts, let alone one that belongs to a master of psychological thrillers. Joanna Murray-Smith’s play, Switzerland, serves as a riveting experiment into the psyche of famed American author, Patricia Highsmith. A performance that leaves no one unscathed to our confronting fascination for darkness.

The tapping of a typewriter echoes throughout a solitude cabin tucked away in the Swiss Alps, the perfect sanctuary for the crime author. However, Highsmith’s peaceful retreat is disrupted by the appearance of a scrappy but determined young man at her doorstep, Edward. Armed with a suitcase, a contract in hand, and his nervously planned arguments, he attempts to convince Highsmith to write one last edition to her renowned series about the murderous character, Mr Ripley. The pride and joy among her bodies of work.

Despite the play’s setting, neutrality has a fruitless presence. The bunker-like retreat constructed by set and lighting designer, Veronique Benett created a deceptively comforting but ominous atmosphere that was befitting to its owner. Much praise must also be given to the designer's work on the lighting effects – especially when it came to the play on shadows, spotlighting certain props, and the novelistic transitions between scenes. Composer and sound designer, Kelly Ryall’s minimalistic auditory touches allows a greater intensity to the stage that is hauntingly unleashed till the end.

With this stimulating plot, Switzerland becomes an invitation to a game. Where the intrigue comes from watching two characters attempting to read each other. To uncover every facet of their motivations, and even the things that make them tick. An effect that sharply comes through from Shaun Rennie’s direction in the staging of this dance between two highly attuned actors. 

Toni Scanlan’s portrayal of the deliciously cruel yet brilliant writer further elevates the acidity that exists in Murray-Smith’s script. One that matches her lethal literary words, or as Edward calls it, works leads to ‘the complete corruption of the reader’. The delivery in her character’s cynical convictions towards the world and how it influences her clever works makes her amusing to watch. While seemingly showing her contradictions with intention. This is an author who keeps her cards tightly close to her chest out of necessity for great writing, and disregards any moral judgements against her.

As for her opponent, Laurence Boxhall’s admirable sense of vulnerability on stage and understanding of his character’s inquisitive mind is immensely perceptible in the story’s arc. Being a great admirer of Highsmith’s works and eager to prove his worth, Edward does everything in his power to stay in that room. The banters that Boxhall throws towards his scene partner in this high-stakes game satisfies the anticipated wittiness of the action. His slight gestures and glances don’t go unnoticed, giving off the feeling that there is something more to him. Nothing short of transformative.

Switzerland’s humour and rising tension engages with its audience in a way that also acknowledges and respects our own intellectual speculations to the events unfolding from our seats. The script’s ability to make us laugh but also read between the lines creates an even greater payoff for when the other shoe inevitably drops. 

Image Supplied


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