While society is known to romanticise the troubled artist, a nebulous line exists that separates fame from infamy.
Black Swan State Theatre Company’s 'Switzerland' asks whether an artist’s work can and should be appraised without regard to the tumultuous life of the creator and whether such creativity would even exist without the turmoil?
The acerbic and reclusive novelist Patricia Highsmith is famed for inventing the devious murderer Mr Ripley, portrayed on screen most recently by Matt Damon. Patricia, the subject of 'Switzerland', is found reluctantly entertaining a guest, having retreated from the society that she loathed, entombed in a monstrous Swiss home of her own design. For Director Lawrie Cullen-Tait, Patricia’s residence was an external embodiment of her tortured inner world.
“She designed this cement bunker, it’s pretty depressing looking. It’s got little windows in it in the back and tall, mean windows at the front and lots of concrete. It’s quite brutalist but fascinating. Inside she had quite a lot of clutter and artefacts and of course, being Patricia Highsmith and being so controversial, she collected lots of weapons like guns and knives.”
While Patricia’s life was riddled with tragedy, Lawrie believes much of the pain stemmed from a single cause.
“She was a very charismatic woman and lots of her issues were based around the era that she was born in and suppressing the fact that she was gay.”
This struggle was depicted in 'Carol', an adaption of her 1952 novel 'The Price of Salt' starring Cate Blanchett. Perversely, Patricia’s sexuality perhaps enabled her to navigate the male-dominated writing industry of the time.
L-R: Jenny Davis OAM, Director Lawrie Cullen-Tait, Giuseppe Rotondella - Image © Philip Gostelow
“When she was at a very young age, she was already dressing as a boy. She felt like she was trapped in a woman’s body; there’s something very masculine about her and so she in an interesting way survived in the male world quite well.”
Patricia lived in two worlds; she had her inner kingdom but was also forced to tolerate the society that she could not push away no matter how hard she tried. Lawrie says that examining this struggle is the essence of Joanna Murray-Smith’s text, which mirrors Patricia’s “world and style”.
“To me the play is about the isolation one can create for yourself by being duplicitous.”
“She doesn’t live outside herself. I know that everyone in the world is broken in one way or another but she was so obsessive that she couldn’t actually live in the real world so easily; she found that hard and I think she lived a very internal life.”
“She was always at people or criticising them or eyeing them or being judgemental because she was protecting herself and didn’t want to be exposed.”
Staging Patricia’s struggle has given Lawrie pause to reflect upon her own artistry.
“I feel that as artists, we’re all obsessive and that’s the scary thing, that’s how I can align myself to Patricia Highsmith. It’s like our work comes before almost our family and friends. When you’re involved with something, you need to be really committed to it.”