Ensemble Theatre, May 7


As Shakespeare did with his protagonist in Richard III, Joanna Murray-Smith plucked Patrica Highsmith from history, dropped her on a stage, and started pulling strings. Biographical drama is seldom compelling when it’s excessively reverential toward historical fact. The truth of what happens on stage counts for more.

Toni Scanlon and Laurence Boxhall. Photos: Brett Boardman.

The play places the famed author of the Ripley books in her final phase in the Swiss Alps, draws on her real-life cantankerousness, racism and alcoholism, and then throws an unwanted visitor into her den. The audience need know nothing of Highsmith because that visitor, Edward, from her New York publishers, helpfully fills us in on the writer whom Graham Greene dubbed “the poet of apprehension”.

Murray-Smith’s intent is to play ever so deftly with the shifting balance of power between the initially hapless Edward (Laurence Boxhall) and the caustic Patricia (Toni Scanlon), and director Shaun Rennie has certainly cast actors who make these power-shifts credible.

Scanlon, whom we see too seldom on our stages, ostensibly has the plum role of being almost murderously misanthropic. In fact Edward’s predecessor in trying to obtain a new publishing contract from Patricia is in therapy and having flashbacks. What a gift for any actor to play someone who savours being so nasty! Perhaps intentionally, Scanlon at first seems slightly detached, but she settles in, rather like a lion which, initially disoriented by the Colosseum, spots the Christian and licks its lips. She’s expert, too, at letting her grip slip almost imperceptibly; at intermittently losing the baton.

Photos: Brett Boardman.

Boxhall has the greater challenge of making us believe Edward’s fecklessness masks a shrewdness that can transmute into sufficient steel to go toe to toe with Patricia; to be able to say, “the whole point of being American is to have the temerity to recast ourselves as who we want to be”. His success in this is absolute.

Designer Veronique Benett ingeniously squeezes a two-story chalet with Alpine views into the Ensemble, and Rennie manipulates his actors with a keen sense of magnifying tension through proximity.

Had Murray-Smith resolved her play on the terms established in the first two acts it would be truly masterful. I shan’t tell what she does instead, but she changes those terms in a way that feels too contrived – something that wouldn’t happen in a Highsmith plot.

Until June 8.