Switzerland, by Joanna Murray-Smith | Directed by Sarah Goodes

Sydney Theatre Company | Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House | Until 20 December

A fictional account of an actual fiction writer’s last days is a fascinating premise. That the writer in question is Patricia Highsmith, the creator of the Ripley series and Strangers on a Train, adds one of the 20th-century’s most provocative literary personalities into the mix.

Joanna Murray-Smith’s Switzerland takes this premise on an exciting, intriguing ride with twists and tension worthy of a Highsmith novel.

The considerable performance space of the Sydney Opera House’s Drama Theatre has been shrunk to a surprisingly cosy and intimate interior via Michael Scott-Mitchell’s reverent reproduction of Highsmith’s own house in Switzerland. It is here that she lived out the last three decades of her life, estranged from her North American birthplace.

In this haven, Highsmith makes good on her New Year’s resolution to drink too much. Surrounded by her impressive collection of nasty-looking weapons, she sporadically strikes at her typewriter and perfects her misanthropic worldview.

Enter Edward Ridgeway (Eamon Farren), sent to persuade the reclusive author to write a final Ripley novel. With a variety of shopping-list items from her native land, brandishing a contract and a self-proclaimed expert knowledge of her works, Ridgeway sets to work convincing Highsmith to sign on.

Despite her impressively scathing responses, Ridgeway’s mix of youthful enthusiasm and determination manages to intrigue Highgate sufficiently to allow him to stay — for the moment, at least. The battle is on.

The repartee is fast-flowing and frequently brutally funny. Interspersed with details of Highsmith’s life, fairly dubious character, and commentary on the frustrations of being female in the male-dominated world of literature, a solid foundation is set for the climactic sharp turn.

Murray-Smith’s clever, elegant writing and Sarah Goode’s insightful direction together would have ensured the success of this new work. But add in an astounding performance from Sarah Peirse as Highsmith and Switzerland is elevated to a level of excellence that makes it a forerunner for highlight of the year.

Peirse is simply mesmerising. Her delivery of Murray-Smith’s dialogue in perfect accent makes her Highsmith a compelling and begrudgingly likeable character.

The trajectory of Eamon Farren’s Ridgeway is beautifully drawn and his execution of the transformation — which I won’t go into to avoid spoilers — is magnificent. From a twitchy, fawning but persistent publishing house flunky, he builds from subtle hints of threat to a powerful foil for the irascible Highgate. It’s his finest role to date.

Switzerland is that rare breed of production whose shadows remain in your peripheral vision well after the house lights have come up.

Eamon Farren and Sarah Peirse in Switzerland. All images: Brett Boardman.