In a lifetime of theatre-going, I cannot recall reviewing a play about someone with whom I socialised several times over a period of about two years. She was the celebrated crime writer Patricia Highsmith, who happened to have had an intimate relationship with one of my closest friends. I had just acquired a first edition of Highsmith’s first and best-known novel, Strangers on a Train (which in 1951 was brilliantly filmed by Alfred Hithcock), and asked this friend whether she, in turn, would ask Ms H to inscribe the book for me.
Warning how difficult, unpredictable and serially disagreeable a woman she could be, I was delighted to be told that not only would she inscribe the book, she’d like to meet for lunch. And although “lunch” for her was several Scotches and nothing else, there was little in our meeting that reinforced her reputation for being rude and unpleasant. When I told my friend how civil she was, she said, “Well, I guess you got her on a good day. She’s usually chronically impossible.”
Thirty years later, sitting in the Ambassadors Theatre watching Joanna Murray-Smith’s Switzerland, a two-hander in which Pat Highsmith (Phyllis Logan) is the central character, a side of her I’d only heard about suddenly came into sharp, unpleasant focus.
The year is 1995 and the setting is Locarno, Switzerland. As Highmith died on February 4 that year, at age 74, from lung cancer (she was a chronic smoker as well as an alcoholic), there is, it would appear, a slight disconnect with the chronology. During the play, we learn that Highsmith has only three or six months to live, but there are no signs at all of physical or mental frailty when we first meet her. Far from being on her deathbed, she’s razor sharp and as toxically vituperative and acerbic as her reputation dictates.
The current victim of her vile disposition is a young man called Edward Ridgeway (Calum Finlay), a publisher’s assistant who has travelled all the way from New York hoping to persuade Highsmith to write one last novel featuring her most famous creation, the charismatic Tom Ripley, a serial killer who always eludes justice. At first she adamantly refuses, insults Edward with a series of lethal invectives, and demands that he gets the hell out of her house.
But Edward is made of sterner stuff than would initially appear, and as the play (performed without an intermission) progresses, a cat-and-mouse game ensues with Highsmith relenting slightly and even eager to play the game. The fact that Edward has gifted her a magnificent dagger to add to her large collection of lethal weapons (her other passion is snails) buys him some time during which her barbs return to their scabbards long enough for her to reveal some of the parental childhood traumas that psychologically transformed themselves into an unhealthy fascination with evil and the boundaries to which it could be stretched.
Though the Highsmith I briefly knew a decade earlier was nowhere in evidence, what I did recognise was her wit, her erudition, her uncompromising dismissal of authors she loathed such as Tom Wolfe and Kurt Vonnegut, her slovenly appearance, and of course her addiction to booze and liquor. I had no idea, however, how racist and anti-Semitic she was, or her capacity for cruelty.
Playwright Murray-Smith’s portrait of a woman haunted by demons and who considered herself to be Tom Ripley’s alter ego (and who secretly wanted to be him) is undeniably entertaining without in any way involving you emotionally. There is, in the last 20 minutes or so, a sting in the tale that I won’t reveal, which convincingly mirrors the psychological in-roads Highsmith made to the thriller genre. One question, though: Emails are mentioned. How likely would this have been in Switzerland in 1995?
Though the play received the kind of critical abuse Highsmith herself might have meted out to something or someone she disliked, I found this imaginary encounter really rather engaging. It’s efficiently directed by Lucy Bailey and convincingly performed by Logan (unrecognisable from her Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper in Downton Abbey) and super-foil Finlay. The problem is, just how interested are audiences in Patricia Highsmith?