On St Martin’s Lane shows related to two of the twentieth-century’s greatest crime writers are currently playing side by side. Both women who navigated a male-dominated literary world and experienced the political, economic and social fluctuations of the post-war era that changed their writing. Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap is in its 65th year making it the longest-running play in the West End by some way, endlessly attracting audiences entranced by her ability to create engaging and innovative scenarios with character-driven mysteries. Next door at the Ambassadors, Joanna Murray-Smith’s new play Switzerland arrives in the West End for the first time, putting Patricia Highsmith in the spotlight with an intriguing duologue about the nature of the authorial voice.
Christie and Highsmith like Conan Doyle before them are authors arguably eclipsed by their greatest creations, works of fiction so tangible they have taken-on a life and momentum of their own. Hercule Poirot has been frequently reinvented on screen and while David Suchet’s interpretation seemed definitive it hasn’t stopped a new Kenneth Branagh film franchise, or an impending BBC adaption of The ABC Murders scheduled for Christmas with John Malkovich as the illustrious detective. Likewise, there is a Sherlock Holmes for all seasons and whether you want a classically imperious Basil Rathbone, an intimidating Jeremy Brett or the social awkwardness of Benedict Cumberbatch these are characters like James Bond and even Harry Potter that have escaped the confines of their author’s imagination and entered the collective consciousness, public property obscuring their creator’s purpose and sometimes even their wishes.
These characters can be a burden as much as they are a boon to their author who after years of being tied to the same kind of writing try unsuccessfully to break free. Poirot and Holmes were both killed-off before Conan Doyle was forced to relent and brought the latter back, while Poirot has a second life in Sophie Hannah’s new novels endorsed by the Christie estate. Switzerland is the story of Patricia Highsmith’s struggle with her own famous creation, the chancer and sociopath Tom Ripley who consumed and dominated a career of voracious and variable productivity. As a representative from her American publishing house is dispatched to convince the irascible Highsmith to pen one final Ripley novel, the writer is torn between the unwelcome expectation to deliver and fascination with revisiting a character that has always inspired her creativity.
In Lucy Bailey’s wonderfully full production, transferring from the Theatre Royal Bath, the emphasis is firmly on the process of invention and the great cost to the writer in trying to inhabit the world of the novel. Highsmith’s reluctance seems to stem from both a concern that she has lost the ability to write Ripley as powerfully as she once did, as well as fearing the effect of re-entering the mind of a character that thrills her. Switzerland is a taut piece of drama that uses Highsmith’s circumstances by the mid 1990s, living in self-imposed exile from the United States in a famously neutral country with limited human contact and a need for drink and cigarettes, to consider the entire dedication of self needed to become a truly great writer.
Genius is often partnered with arrogance, unpleasantness and a desire to flout social norms, and here Highsmith displays a disregard for any form of social structure or rules that directly reflect the character she creates, a charming young man who does the same but with murderous and self-aggrandising outcomes. Who is the most dangerous person in this scenario, the fictional creation or the mind that created it? This is a dominated theme in Murray-Smith’s piece, and something that Bailey seizes upon to play with tone and the boundary between author and character.
Driven by the arrival of Edward Ridgeway, Bailey utilises Switzerland’s three “chapters” to first show us the famous Highsmith in command of a life she is only prepared to live on her own terms and refusing to be flattered by the adoring young man who arrives at her door. In the middle section, we feel the power shift as Highsmith and Edward find a common ground, her respect growing as his fear of her diminishes, allowing him to show his erudition and engage in a lively debate about the literary lifestyle. The final act should not be spoiled, but Bailey’s experience of staging crime drama including the impressive Witness for the Prosecution is brought to bear in a subtly developing tension that has the quality of a Highsmith novel spilled over into her real life, making a crucial point about the indivisibility of the author from their fiction.
Running for 95-minutes without an interval, visually very little changes in William Dudley’s set so, like the perfect crime, all the elements must be there from the start. Highsmith has been given a fully furnished flat full of books and a space for writing, but it is the secondary details that become the focus. Every wall has a collection of weapons on display which, reflecting the text in which the central pair debate the most powerful guns to commit a murder, suggests more than a hobby, rather a collective obsession for the writer who thinks society gets too het-up about killing. The exterior world of snowy mountain ranges is also visible through the flat, and, while this initially feels like a calm retreat, it soon morphs into isolation and exposure, helping to wordlessly shift the atmosphere to something more sinister as the relationship between Highsmith and Ridgeway changes gear.
A work not driven by plot but almost entirely by character can be hard to sustain, even more so with only two actors who spend a lot of time chewing-over ideas, making this a very talky play focused on debate and engagement of theory more than storyline, so it is credit to Bailey and her performers that they hold the attention throughout, utilising every word to inform our understanding of character, tone and context.
As Highsmith, Phyllis Logan is a dominant presence, lone and comfortable in the room she has so carefully constructed to hide from the world. Throughout, the audience is never quite sure how seriously to take her assertions of independence, her hatred of the New York publishing scene and the racial prejudice she occasionally exhibits. Ridgeway accuses her of posing, of espousing views that she doesn’t believe for effect, so Logan uses the performance to quite skilfully make us wonder whether this is a writer who assumes her characters’ traits in lieu of her own, and if “Patricia Highsmith” is just one of many personas she adopts.
Murray-Smith also has much to say about the lifestyle of the writer, the single-mindedness and knowledge of their own rhythms that sets them apart. Logan uses this to suggest a touch of the Hemingways, an author almost on the run from reality, ever aware that her lifestyle and predilections cannot find peace in ordinary society. There is a huge vulnerability that underlies Logan’s characterisation, helping the audience to see through the hard drinking and aggressive manner to something more fragile, a fear of being inconsequential that makes so much sense of Highsmith’s behaviour. Logan’s trick is to keep us guessing on how that will eventually manifest itself – breakdown or murder?
The combative relationship the novelist develops with Edward Ridgeway is central to Switzerland, challenging the pair to an interminable battle in which the stakes only ever seem to get higher. Calum Findlay’s growing confidence is well charted, balancing a nervous excitement at meeting an idol with strong desire to prove his intellectual worth on all her favourite subjects from weaponry to books and the New York landscape. Findlay’s performance takes Ridgeway in the opposite direction to Logan’s Highsmith and while time reveals her essential fragility, it shows his inner steel, hiding beneath a veneer of polite awe.
Any fans of crime fiction will know never to trust a stranger who turns up unexpectedly, but Findlay’s approach is to be entirely disarming, a chastened young man in cosy jumpers, a literary nerd eager to please his celebrated host. Yet Ridgeway’s wardrobe evolves as his true character comes to light, and Findlay grasps the darker moments in which the pair consider a new Ripley plot to suggest deeper waters beneath the surface. Almost from the start Ridgeway is a collection of conundrums and contradictions, a sweet boy with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Highsmith’s back catalogue, a harmless fan who helps to concoct a dastardly murder plot for the new Ripley that trips too easily off the tongue, as though considered long ago.
Bailey has firm control of the ebb and flow of power as the production unfolds, retaining a degree of mystery and danger, a tipping point that could just as easily be dismissed as paranoia or could develop into something much darker. Switzerland is a fine tribute to a writer of psychological fiction whose own life was full of drama and incident. Side-by-side with Agatha Christie on St Martin’s Lane feels appropriate for two authors who entirely reshaped the crime novel and deserve to be remembered with as much enthusiasm as the characters who eclipsed them.