You excite me.
Phyllis Logan takes the lead as iconic crime writer Patricia Highsmith in the UK premiere of Joanna Murray-Smith’s Switzerland – an exploration of Highsmith’s time in the mountains of Switzerland: crotchety, uninspired, a little violent. The result is a strange, intimate look into the mystery of artistry and a frightening, unexpected one-act drama.
Murray-Smith begins her piece much like a crime novel: isolated where no one can hear you scream, set littered with knives, swords, guns, a young stranger arrives. This Edward (a fantastic Calum Finlay) has supposedly arrived from her publishing company to convince her to write another Ripley novel – but something in his all-American Apple-store gawkiness suggests an ulterior motive. Comic initially, the space seems to darken and squeeze as we inevitably move – almost casually – towards the fear. The journey to it, however, is so expertly gradual that the changes are imperceptible until one suddenly considers how easy it felt when Finlay’s likeable Edward remarked on the scarcity of white bread and butter. Chekhov’s gun comes in the form of a knife and when, on the second morning, Edward arrives with a small gash above his collar, you can feel the audience shift in their seats.
Logan is a force of nature as the author, giving a performance that assuredly and easily sweeps the small intimate Ustinov theatre – slouching on her chair, smoking, drinking, swearing, Logan is completely unrecognisable. Finlay is, however, a more than capable partner to Logan and, together, they are eminently watchable. A two-person play rides on the performances, and both are excellent. Finlay lends a chameleonic energy; physically shifting from scene to scene, little mannerisms being dropped here or there, a change to his voice, perhaps the most notable in a well-played moment in which Edward drops his awkward persona to lean closer to the much elder Patricia and mutter “You excite me” – the sex-appeal of art? or something far more sinister? There’s an unexpected chemistry here that is quite marvellously entertaining.
Murray-Smith’s piece touches upon art, the lonely struggle of an artist, ideas of legacy and immortality, a writer’s relationship to their character, failure and success: all with clarity and insight. The themes of the piece perhaps aren’t groundbreaking (they’re spread too thinly to be hugely affecting) but they’re cleverly touched upon and thoughtful in the moment. It’s certainly interesting, but it is Logan and Finlay that make this piece soar, particularly in moments of black humour. It is best when the audience seem to forget to breathe as the oxygen goes thin in the mountains; when one is unsure of their strange dynamic, or the reveal of everything being more sinister than it seemed. There are times when the piece is quite frightening, but I was left unsure as to why I was so disturbed. The move from naturalistic drama to metaphorical theatre-play here is fast, perhaps too fast, but the resulting moment is lifted by the quality of the performances. Silently, Finlay is flooring in the final moments of the piece.
Switzerland is a lovely, exciting, entertaining and often frightening piece of theatre which luxuriates in a small, tense venue and the quality of a couple of great actors. The play seems to dance around the violent, skirt around disaster. It’s so worth watching.