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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Switzerland – Sydney Opera House

For a study of a woman obsessed with murder, this latest from Joanna Murray-Smith displays a conspicuous lack of danger.
By Jessica Keath
November 17, 2014
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By Jessica Keath
November 17, 2014
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Any mention of Joanna Murray-Smith tends to elicit the same kind of wince as would David Williamson. Like Williamson, she's an expert at portraying the Australian bourgeoisie engaged in the national pastime of cringing. But this is a trap she steers well clear of in her latest offering, Switzerland; a fictional account of American author Patricia Highsmith's late in life retreat to the Swiss Alps.

Sarah Peirse playing the straight-shooting curmudgeon makes old age look like a hoot. Peirse appeared last year in Murray-Smith's Fury playing a mild mannered, upper middle class intellectual mother. Here she shows off her acting chops by transforming into the nasty, charismatic Highsmith.

We're introduced to Highsmith hiding away from her fame and literary adversaries in the US in a cosy, naturalistic interior designed by Michael Scott-Mitchell with a spiral staircase, fireplace and writing desk. Apart from an offensively kitsch Highsmith portrait hanging to the right of the fireplace, the space works well. The action begins when a timid junior assistant from her publishing house visits, ostensibly to persuade her to sign a contract for a final installment of The Talented Mr Ripley. The opening exchange between Eamon Farren playing Edward and Peirse shows off Murray-Smith's comic competence and received plenty of laughter on opening night. The witty repartee only loses its shine when we reach the tenth false exit in as many minutes.

As entertaining as the play is, it's hard to see its relevance. Whereas Fury spoke to a specific tension between radicalism and racial vilification, Switzerland only gets as far as generalised chats about the universality of human evil and cliched psychoanalysis suggesting that Highsmith is protecting herself behind her racism. It's all fine, and Peirse and Farren's performances are even mighty fine, but I couldn't help feeling that if director Sarah Goodes had focused more on Highsmith's obsession with snails or her collection of guns, we might have been in for a more interesting night of theatre. For a character study of a woman obsessed with murder, Switzerland displays a conspicuous lack of danger.

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