Natasha Ciesielski
10th May 2024


Switzerland is a biographical fictitious play about crime novelist Patricia Highsmith. Set in the snowy alps, the play penned by Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith, delves into Highsmith’s life as a recluse in the mountains when an young underling editor from her New York publishing house arrives coaxing her to sign a new publishing deal and write one more book about her notorious character Ripley.

American author Highsmith wrote gripping psychological thrillers including Strangers on a Train, which Alfred Hitchcock adapted into a film (in 1951), and The Talented Mr. Ripley, twice adapted to film, the most famous the 1999 version starring Jude Law, Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow. There’s also a new take on Ripley currently screening on Netflix.

Highsmith was a literary lioness who enthralled readers with tales of murder, intrigue, and the darkest corners of the human psyche. As a character, it makes sense to build a story around the well-known writer. She was fascinating, complex and contradictory. Intellectually brilliant; liked by few. Described as a ‘challenging personality’, she was cantankerous, cruel and at her own admittance, could have been a violent and dangerous woman if she didn’t have her creative outlet. “I’m ugly at heart, so what? We all are. That’s what makes us more interesting than rocks.”

Highsmith is not a character to love but Toni Scanlan (best known for her role in the Australian television police drama Water Rats as Helen Blakemore) is superb in the role, embodying the thriller doyenne with animated aggression. The verbal sparring and mind games with Edward Ridgeway (played by Laurence Boxhall) are engrossing. Boxhall portrays the character perfectly, articulate one moment, rambling, down on his knees eager the next.

Murray-Smith’s plays, including Switzerland, have been seen around the world from Broadway to the West End. Between the wit of Highsmith and the wordsmith skills Murray-Smith uses to evoke the storyteller, the dialogue is exceptional. Considering the subject matter of Highsmith novels it shouldn’t be surprising that the play goes into dark territory. Highsmith is scathing in her verbal tirade of Edward, forcing him to tell her of his parents death, stating: “most happy people are people who don’t ask enough questions.”

Directed by Shaun Rennie, there’s an ominous tone throughout the play, especially at the tail end. Rennie is no stranger to the stage having earned three Sydney Theatre Award nominations for Best Director. Prior to Switzerland he directed the sold-out-25th-anniversary production of RENT at the Sydney Opera House.


The one room set design (by Veronique Benett) is Highsmith’s lounge room interior, decorated with antique swords, guns mounted on the wall and her writing desk. The old typewriter and dial up phone dating the play to the last century. Benett uses the lighting to great effect, with menacing shadows, changing the atmosphere and playing into the dark final twist.

Switzerland is a thought-provoking play that will mentally challenge audiences. There are some shocking and cringe-worthy moments but they mirror Highsmith’s manner. Towards the end this play does get a bit meta but it’s up to the viewer how they choose to interpret it. It’s a mystery right until the end, just like Highsmith’s stories.

Four stars.

Running for 90 minutes (no interval) Switzerland is playing now at Ensemble till the 8 June. 

For tickets visit》 ensemble.com.au/