When people think of Switzerland, thrilling doesn’t usually come to mind. However, Joanna Murray-Smith’s play may change your mind. Switzerland tells the story of author Patricia Highsmith – famed for penning the Talented Mr Ripley series – and a mysterious stranger who sought her out while she’s hiding away in, you guessed it, Switzerland.
It received high acclaim during its run at Theatre Royal Bath’s Ustinov Studio. Now, it’s playing at the Ambassadors Theatre for a strictly limited run.
We sat down with one of the two-person cast, Calum Finlay, to find out more about the play, his process and how he got into acting.
For anybody who hasn’t heard of Switzerland, how would you describe it?
It’s a psychological thriller looking at the last days of Patricia Highsmith, the novelist, who’s holed up in Switzerland hiding from the world when a young man turns up from her publishing company trying to persuade her to write a final instalment of the Talented Mr Ripley series. But perhaps he isn’t who he says he is.
What were your thoughts when you first read Joanna Murray-Smith’s script?
I thought “what an amazing part!” Without giving too much away, it’s a part which has a lot of twists and turns and you get to keep pulling the rug from under the audience which is a lot of fun to do. The play was just so clever because she’s managed to reflect Patrica’s writing style in the tone of her play. It’s very dark and tense. It’s also got a lot of humanity and humour in it which I think Patricia’s work had.
How much did you know about Patricia’s work before accepting the role?
Well, I knew of her and I’d obviously seen the Talented Mr Ripley film with Matt Damon and Jude Law, and I knew of Strangers On A Train. But I hadn’t read any of her novels. I’ve now read the entire Ripliad. She’s such a fascinating woman. It’s been a real pleasure getting to know her.
As it’s such a suspenseful show, how do you keep it fresh every night?
I suppose you can only really play the moment you’re in so you have to forget everything that’s going to happen and be really present with the other actor. That’s the only way you can do it. I try not to think about the play at all during the day which helps as well. It definitely gets harder the longer the run goes on. But you know, you do your warm up and you get into a little routine and that helps.
The show first played in Theatre Royal Bath’s intimate Ustinov Studio, how have you found the change of space now it’s at the Ambassadors Theatre?
The audience feels a lot further away here. In Bath, it felt like they were in the same room as you. Like they were sat in Patricia’s house. You could very clearly see the first four or five rows. That’s not the same here. But bizarrely, it almost works better. It’s not a ginormous theatre. We’ve not had to change things up wildly. It’s just given it a grandeur. But the play has a slightly heightened naturalism, I guess you’d call it, and that kind of hits this slightly bigger space I think.
How do you find being part of a two-hander? Do you prepare differently when there’s an ensemble cast?
It’s much more intense. There’s not a moment in rehearsals where another scene is being rehearsed and you can go and have a cup of tea and digest what’s just happened. It’s non-stop. But in a way, now that we’re playing it, it’s quite liberating. You just have to jump in at the start and you don’t come up for breath until the end. It’s quite exciting. And I’m lucky to be working with Phyllis Logan who’s incredibly kind and generous with her time and her experience. She’s been absolutely wonderful. So I imagine if you didn’t get on with the other actor, it might be a really difficult experience but this has been such a pleasure.
You’ve worked on both stage and on screen, how does Switzerland rank as a challenge in your career?
It’s definitely one of the most enjoyable parts I’ve ever played. How lucky am I to be doing a two-hander in the West End? When I left drama school, my ambitions were set so high so this feels like a bit of a special moment. My parents don’t work in the industry. One’s a primary school teacher and the other’s in finance, so they don’t always get the world I’m in. But this is very tangible for them. And having it transfer… it’s a very special way of performing.
As your parents aren’t involved in the industry, who or what inspired you to become an actor?
I was really lucky that there was a fantastic youth theatre where I grew up in the West Midlands. It’s called the Playbox Theatre, which is still going now. And it was just a brilliant place where you could audition for six or seven shows per year, they did courses, there was lots of acting but also if you wanted to sing or do circus work, you could. There was a film course there, too. It really is a remarkable resource in the West Midlands and it doesn’t get the credit it deserves. It really has given some quality training to young people.
What advice would you give anyone hoping to follow in your footsteps?
Make sure it’s what you really, really want to do because you don’t spend a lot of time doing the job. You spend a lot of time in between and doing stuff that isn’t acting. And that can be quite difficult and soul destroying. And it’s really hard. So make sure you really want to do it. And if you do, you just have to be single-minded about it and keep working hard and going to plays. Seeing plays can be really difficult both timewise and financially but it’s worth it. I mean, two weeks before this, I was working in a library. It’s hard. You have to be really passionate about it.
What’s one reason to go and see Switzerland?
Phyllis Logan is transformative.
Based on an interview conducted by Robin Johnson.