By Joanna Murray-Smith. Ensemble Theatre, Sydney. Directed by Shaun Rennie. 3 May – 8 June, 2024

Reviewed : May 7th, 2024*

Photo : Brett Boardman

Joanna Murray-Smith’s fictional play about Patricia Highsmith captures many of the renown Amrican writer’s eccentricities and foibles, among them her troubled childhood, her racism, and antisemitism, her hatred of the French … and her fondness for cats and snails. She sets the older, reclusive Highsmith in her chalet in Switzerland and imagines an encounter with Edward Ridgeway, a pushy young envoy from her US publisher intent on contracting a final book about her infamous sociopathic ‘hero’ Tom Ridley.

Photo : Brett Boardman

Murray-Smith’s pits them against each other in dense, short, pithy dialogue that requires rapid-fire delivery and response. Shaun Rennie follows the playwright’s lead, matching the short, sharp sentences with tense, taut blocking that sees the characters stalking each other around Veronique Benett’s close, cluttered set where the icy light of morning reflects through glass off alpine peaks.

So intense is the cut and thrust between them, so cruel Highsmith’s taunting, that it feels almost prurient to be watching so closely. Having seen STC’s production in 2014 where distance from the action made Highsmith’s isolation seem more extreme, I wondered how it would feel on a closer, intimate, thrust stage. Rennie has answered my musing impressively.

Tony Scanlon IS Patricia Highsmith. She picks up on each characteristic suggested in the dialogue – the bitterness, hostility, harshness, wit, intelligence – and adds to this her own research and perceptive interpretation: a throaty smoker’s voice, the wariness of the isolate, the sharp confident delivery of the witty intellectual. She fires insults, makes insolent demands, constantly moving and gesturing, her Camel cigarette in hand. Scanlon’s portrayal seems almost to deny the age of the writer except for a sort of synthetic energy that she allows to waver every so often. It is a stunning portrayal.

Photo : Brett Boardman

A more intense energy is evident in Laurence Boxhall’s portrayal of Edward Ridgeway. Boxhall holds that energy back as his Edward ‘sizes up’ this strange, strong old woman whom he hopes to wrangle. Initially he is hesitant, in awe, startled, seeming even a little afraid of her quips and accusations. But when he begins to bite back, with gritty responses and a cool, wily charm, it is obvious there is more to this character than his superficial façade.

Photo : Brett Boardman

Benett’s set, framed by the high skylight windows and a narrow open stairway, with the paraphernalia of a cosy, writer’s den, allows Rennie to centre the action and concentrate on the cut and thrust of the dialogue and the inferences therein. The lighting, also designed by Benett, intrinsically follows the changing mood and tempo of the play; the iciness of the opening scenes, the quickening of the action, the almost brightness … and the shadows.

Shaun Rennie directs Murray-Smith’s beautifully crafted script and clear, multi-dimensional characters in a production that is close and fast, wittily funny at times, brutally vicious at others. And Toni Scanlon relishes the opportunity to play the visceral, bitter writer that created a charming psychopath like Mr Ripley.

*Opening Night