Tag Archives: Patricia Highsmith

Switzerland – The Ambassadors Theatre

Switzerland - Theatre Royal Bath

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.

Switzerland is at The Ambassadors Theatre until 5 January and tickets start at £19.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.    

Film Review: Carol

I’m going out on a limb here but I have to say I don’t understand the fuss about this film. Sometimes there are movies that receive enormous critical acclaim, described as the most beautiful and meaningful thing ever made but when it’s finally released to the public you just don’t see what the critics see. While I enthusiastically endorsed recent critics’ favourites including Macbeth, Suffragette, Black Mass and Steve Jobs, I genuinely just couldn’t understand their rhapsodic reviews of Carol which was shown at the London Film Festival. Todd Haynes’s earlier film Far From Heaven which focuses on the same period and essentially similar themes was a much better depiction of female emotional life in 1950s America, and one that actually generated more emotional connection for me.

The problem with Carol is that it left me cold – certainly not the reaction that I had expected – and one that was seemingly shared by a number of other civilians in the audience. You almost never see this at the film festival, but a lot of people were checking their phones throughout and a couple behind me on the way out said it was just ‘alright’ – not a ringing endorsement for a film that has been lavished with 5 star reviews. Sadly I think it’s one of those films that generate a lot of interest because of its subject matter particularly when associated with a big star name, which critics feel they have to love regardless of its shortcomings.

Carol is the story of two women who fall in love in 1950s America when they meet over the counter of a department store at Christmas. Based on what I’m assured is a so-so novel by Patricia Highsmith, Carol is a well-to-do housewife apparently separated from her husband and living at home with her son. While out shopping she meets Therese, a sale assistant, who she develops an interest in and soon the pair are meeting frequently for lunches and outings which nobody seems to find odd given their respective class. But Carol has a pattern of behaviour, considered outrageous at the time, and her husband threatens to take her child away. What follows is an examination of duty and sacrifice, to understand if love really can conquer all when a child’s future is at stake.

Part of the problem here is that the relationship between Therese and Carol just isn’t believable; they accelerate from eyeing each other up over the shop counter to being openly in love and running away together which seems both too fast in the context of the film and totally unlikely in the period this novel is set. It’s not the performances but somehow because the story is trying to so hard to emanate emotional and meaningful subtexts it actually fails to connect properly with the viewer. You never really know where it’s going and it doesn’t ask enough questions about who these people are and why they’re behaving as they do for us to invest in the individuals and their struggle. For example we don’t learn much about Carol, where she’s come from or the extent to which she’s been suffocated in a conventional marriage. In one scene there’s a hint that she’s openly engaged in a previous relationship with her similarly-aged female friend so it seemed a shame not to more fully explore the slightly predatory nature of her personality – a woman who is openly homosexual and pursues a considerably younger and clearly confused woman. Haynes seems instead too eager to show both Carol and Therese in a sympathetic light because this is a mainstream film about a female relationship rather than giving us interesting and troubled character studies of the type Highsmith tends to write.

Therese is actually a blank canvas and it’s virtually impossible to see what attracts Carol too her. Played by Rooney Mara, she is clearly beautiful and confused – shown using her reluctance to become engaged to any of the men she knows – but there is almost no depth to her, I would even go so far as to say insipid. I didn’t even like her as a person so I couldn’t bring myself to care if her relationship works out. Carol (Cate Blanchett) was by far the more interesting and sympathetic role and Blanchett does her best, but again it felt like so many opportunities were thrown away either to offer a sensitive study of a woman forced into a certain way of living or  to explore someone defying convention to live the way she chose whatever the consequences. Blanchett is such a credible actress that she gives us plenty of pain, frustration and feeling, but this is all unfortunately muffled by the strangely cold perspective of the film.

If you contrast this with Far From Heaven which so brilliantly depicted the same restricted period and its particular difficulties for women, the earlier film far outshines Carol. It covers many of the same themes, a troubled marriage, the expectations on housewives to be perfect, how latent homosexuality can pull a marriage apart, as well as the growth of deeply felt but unconventional relationships (in this case between a conventional woman and her black gardener), and the failings of Carol seem almost insurmountable against the beauty of Far From Heaven. Carol is clearly exquisitely put together, the colours muted to reflect the troubled story and everyone looks fabulous all the time, but it’s all just so empty.

I really wanted to like this film and had very high expectations from the reviews it garnered at early film festivals. Sadly this is an Emperor’s New Clothes situation – and I realise this may well be an unpopular view – but the inattention of the audience and my own lack of engagement with any of it makes this a wasted opportunity. Despite Blanchett’s hard-working central performance, I have to agree with the couple behind me, it’s just alright. Carol could have been a considerably better film.

Carol was shown at the London Film Festival and opened nationwide on 27 November so see it at your local cinema. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

Strangers on a Train – Gielgud Theatre

It’s a brilliant premise; two strangers meet on a train, exchange stories and discuss swapping murders to fool the police. One man, Charles Bruno, takes the conversation seriously, disposing of Miriam, the unfaithful and inconvenient wife of architect Guy Haines. Guy, however, assumed it was a drunken nonsense and much of the story involves the pressure on him to uphold his end of the bargain. Based on the Patricia Highsmith novel and the superb Hitchcock film, this play has fantastic source material, yet somehow fails to live up to either.

Let me first say that the stage design is pretty spectacular; the creation of the various settings from a 50s train carriage to New York apartments, and especially the Metcalf merry-go-round are amazing. There’s some brilliant use of video creating the sense of a moving train, and projecting various motifs which is unlike anything else I’ve seen. The acting is pretty decent as well; Laurence Fox does well as the crumbling Haines, an everyman unravelling as events overtake him, whilst Imogen Stubbs has a nice role as a glamorous and fey Mrs Bruno. Jack Huston is an eccentric and obsessive Bruno, although I would have liked a bit of menace in his performance. It’s hard to believe Haines would feel threatened and not dismiss him as a crank. You can’t help but compare with Robert Walker’s perfectly pitched and disturbing film performance.

The real problem here is the script; the first half bounces from scene to scene without any proper time to understand the characters, their motivation and the risks they take; the second act needs a red pen through a number of extraneous scenes that add nothing to the plot and just delay what could be a much tighter conclusion. This play needs to be taken away for a few weeks, rewritten and edited before coming back for another try. First, they need to decide whether it’s paying homage to Highsmith or Hitchcock – at the moment it’s veering unsuccessfully between the two and ends up being a bit of mess character-wise.

Most important of all is the scene in the train, which is where this play begins, but it fell flat. They messed this up and it has ramifications for the rest of the play. It should be the crux of the drama, the Faustian pact is set; whether or not the characters know it at the time, their lives change from this point and the audience, at least, should feel the importance of that moment. So, it needs to be longer; we need to know who these men are, the extent of their disappointments, and why on earth the sensible Haines would share any of his secrets with Bruno. It must also explain the origins of Bruno’s obsession with him – it makes more sense in the film because he’s a famous tennis player, but here he’s an architect and I couldn’t really understand the fixation. Fundamentally, this scene has to lay the groundwork for the character and plot developments that follow.

There are a lot of great elements here, a fantastic story, good acting and spectacular design, not to mention the production expertise of Bond powerhouse Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson. This should be so good! And I really think it can be – it just needs a script more worthy of Highsmith and Hitchcock

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