With Joanna Murray-Smith’s Switzerland set to open in Adelaide, Sandy Gore chats about playing the “mercurial” author that was Patricia Highsmith and what sort of truths there are to be found in her most famous creation, Tom Ripley.
Sandy Gore says she doesn’t see herself as just an actor. Her role is more than calling out lines as part of a play; it’s to tell a story.
It makes sense then that Gore finds herself playing Patricia Highsmith, one of the most enigmatic storytellers of the 20th century, in Joanna Murray-Smith’s play Switzerland. Having been performed four times since it was penned, Switzerland comes to Adelaide trailing praise for its dark wit and clever manipulation of audience expectations.
Highsmith was a prolific novelist, responsible for a wide collection of thrilling stories rife with existential questions about morality, including Strangers on a Train, and of course, the Tom Ripley novels. Those stories about Ripley, with his amoral machinations and murderous identity changes, captivated the imaginations of many and still do to this day. Gore is brimming with enthusiasm as she speaks to The Adelaide Review about the story the State Theatre Company is about to tell, particularly one from an Australian playwright such as Joanna Murray-Smith.
“She is a mad Highsmith fan,” says Gore of Murray-smith. “She was just mulling over and thinking about what would happen if there was this cheeky agent from Highsmith’s publishing agency in NYC who came to her in Switzerland and said, ‘I’m going to convince you to write another Ripley — one last Ripley.’ That’s it. It’s over the last three days of her life, and what happens in that period of time.”
It’s a curious premise for a play, and with little other plot detail than that on the two-hander show (also starring Matt Crook as the literary agent), one can only presume that the tale will involve the talented Mr Ripley as more than a literary reference. Gore is coy when questioned on that point, determined not to undermine any twists, but does admit that “you might find the odd bits of Tom Ripley peering around the corner.”
“It’s for the audience to determine,” continues Gore. “Basically the conceit is that the young agent arrives and says, ‘I’m going to make you write another Ripley, because I know you want to.’”
It’s an ominous point for the plot to hinge on, to be sure, and worthy of the whodunit genre that Highsmith operated so masterfully within. And while Ripley is a interesting character to discuss, Highsmith herself is a bundle of fascinating contradictions. Gore says that it is a joy to play such a complex character, if not a challenge.
“She was so cantankerous and so mean-spirited and such a racist and so highly intelligent and funny,” Gore says. “She’s so mercurial that you ask constantly, ‘which Patricia am I now?’”
Much of Highsmith’s pessimistic nature came from her having been spurned by the chauvinistic world in her era, Gore says. She knew she was talented, and knew she wanted to be a writer, but the American literary elite never accepted her.
“The novelist males, the blokes, the Tom Wolfes and Vonneguts around New York at the time didn’t like her,” says Gore. “It was very difficult for a woman then to make her way as a novelist. She was accused of being a pot boiler and a crime writer but she was much, much more than that.”
Murray-Smith has made sure to include these aspects of Highsmith’s life and personality in her script, contends Gore, who relishes bringing them to life, and says that the high-flying author’s experience might be more universal to an audience than one would expect.
“We all want to be liked, accepted, honoured, you know. But if that doesn’t happen, particularly where she was in the echelons of the literary world, I think having the door not-quite-open in a man’s world is difficult.”
Is there a comparison to make then, between Highsmith, who bitterly fought her way to the top of a competitive industry, and her creation, Ripley, who murdered and imitated his way there?
“I’ve thought about that, and never actually settled on it,” Gore says. “Of course there has to be part of Ripley that belongs to her. As an actor you have to go into a feeling and tap into a feeling or memory that is familiar to you. You don’t have to be a heroin addict to play one, but you have to have an idea of the desperation that that person has reached, having observed or experienced it in your own small life. I think maybe Patricia was looking to find an anti-hero.”
Highsmith certainly loved her amoral creation, though, and what his success said about the world she lived through.
“She adored the character of Tom Ripley,” Gore says. “She said, ‘He’s my companion, my muse, my most admired character.’ I can’t imagine him — because he was so amoral — coming from the pen of any other writer. She was so focussed on a moral compass, and what that meant or didn’t mean. Ripley is so smart, clever and devious that you can see her conjuring him up with such great delight.”
October 20 until November 5
Photography: Andy Rasheed