Laurence Boxhall: The art in Switzerland

by | Apr 29, 2024

A gripping psychological thriller, Switzerland by Joanna MurraySmith, makes its way to the Ensemble Theatre next month.

A crisp two-hander starring Toni Scanlan (Belvoir’s The Weekend) as Patricia Highsmith, alongside Laurence Boxhall (The Mousetrap Australia), Switzerland is a play audiences will not soon forget.

For actor Laurence Boxhall, two-hander plays like Switzerland are such a beautiful, challenging kind of art as, he says, there is nowhere to hide, so it always feels like you get to stretch and grow as an artist.

” You have to be match-fit; you have to be switched on. Two people having a conversation and putting their ideas, beliefs, or convictions into contestation against each other is such a fascinating thing to watch unfold. Joanna Murray Smith has written such an acerbic, layered, thought provoking play that does exactly that. The chance to unravel the text and see what makes the characters tick was too enticing an opportunity to pass up.”

Boxhall  saw an amateur production of the play several years ago in Melbourne and found the premise to be really interesting and always had it in the back of his mind. “There have been a few plays over the years that I’ve seen and had gently simmering in my brain ‘just in case’ it comes along, and ‘Switzerland’ was one of them,” he says.  Boxhall also knew of the director Shaun Rennie’s work, and had him on his list of people to work with, as well as having seen a few shows at Ensemble and coming away believing the company produced really great work, so when the play came to his attention, all the pieces seemed to click as a good idea. “The timing worked brilliantly as well while doing my scheduling last year as I would be producing and acting in a play at the start of 2024, another two-hander, then had two weeks between closing that show and starting rehearsals for Switzerland, so it felt like the two plays were structurally linked. I love dialogue-driven theatre, so it hasn’t been hard to stay excited! The play is a treat. ”

Boxhall believes that Murray-Smith’steasing but totally satisfying piece has a lot in it that keeps you thinking about art, the nature of art, the idea of owning your past and your mistakes, and how you evolve as an artist. Or indeed, how you evolve as a person. “I found there to be a lot to sink my teeth in to, and the more I sit with the work, the more it resonates. You’ll have to come and find out for yourself. In general brush strokes, who doesn’t love a thriller!”

As to how Boxhall got involved in the project initially: well, he was in Melbourne getting off a tram and got a call from his agent.  “They mentioned that Shaun was interested in auditioning me for Edward, as he’d seen some previous things I’d done on stage. I learnt the lines and auditioned for him, and then got a call the next day saying I got the role, which was very exciting!”

While Highsmith was responsible for giving us one of the most fascinating literary psychopaths of all time, her own cruel and nasty persona may not be as well reported.

Says Boxhall, “As people may or may not know, Patricia Highsmith wrote some incredible thrillers. She wrote most famously The Talented Mr Ripley and Strangers on a Train, The Two Faces Of January and The Cry of the Owl. She also wrote, in a very different tone, Carol. Undeniably brilliant works. Yet Highsmith was an incredibly complicated character. Racist, homophobic (while also being a lesbian), xenophobic, antisemitic, manipulative, and vile, while probably being the smartest person in the room, incredibly insightful about us as a species, and whip-smart funny. She also had a remarkably dark upbringing. Murray-Smith goes into all of this. How does your prior darkness influence your present, and your future? We all have murky parts to us, what do you cling on to, and what do you leave behind? What legacy do you create if you base your life, your identity, or your work, around that darkness?”

Boxhall describes the play as mercurial, shapeshifting, slow burning, and darkly funny and believes Murray-Smith has achieved this by being incredibly familiar with Highsmith’s writings and being able to symbiotically create a piece of writing that emulates the tone and rhythm of her novels. “It’s fascinating. You don’t need to be a Highsmith fan to appreciate it, Murray-Smith’s writing is good enough to be instantly accessible.”

Boxhall hopes audiences leave the play thinking about our own relationship with inner darkness. “Shaun speaks about our (as an audience, as a society) fascination with murder and violence, from true-crime podcasts to Scandi-noir, and our willingness to consume that form of entertainment without feeling the need to unravel what kind of person creates that entertainment in its best form,” he says. “Switzerland is a great addition to the very current debate of the relationship and link between art and the artist.”

This is Boxhall’s first show working at Ensemble, and, he says, everyone has been so incredibly welcoming. “Everyone in the company has been friendly, warm and incredibly helpful. Coming in to work each day is joyous.”  He has genuinely enjoyed every day in the rehearsal room and says there has been something every day for hum to really get something out of. “I’ve loved working with Shaun. He’s a wonderful collaborator and is fantastic at working with actors, you really feel like you’re making something *together*. On any given day, any time we as a team come across something in the script that we feel like we don’t quite have a handle on yet, it feels like a puzzle, not a problem, because you know puzzles have a solution; you just need to find it. That certainly takes the pressure off.”

As an actor, Boxhall does not like to live in the same world twice, so whatever he’s doing currently, he’ll try and find something next that is different so he can move from a life he knows about to a life he doesn’t know about.

“I started a production company called The Ninth Floor last year as I have a list of work that I’d like to produce that I don’t think would otherwise be seen, and I produced and acted in a play for the first time at fortyfivedownstairs in Melbourne this year, which was very exciting. I’d been sitting on the play for six years since I came across it in a library and it dealt with many topics, largely with the isolation of rural communities, men’s mental health, and PTSD. I’ll always have a vested interest in stories involving mental health and PTSD and the effect that it has on families given its effect on my family. I’m certainly very eager to see more work shining a light on those subjects, so if I can continue to entice great directors to work with me on them and for audiences to come and see them, I’ll certainly be very happy.”

Darkly humorous and highly ingenious, Switzerland is possibly Murray-Smith’s best yet!

Says Boxhall, “Patricia Highsmith is very much back in the zeitgeist. She never left, really, but she’s very much at the forefront now. Matt Damon’s The Talented Mr Ripley is on Netflix, as is Andrew Scott’s Ripley series that came out this month, and Cate Blanchett’s Carol. Ben Affleck made Deep Water into a film in 2022. There’s a resurgence of interest. Switzerland shows you the mind behind the characters, and when the mind is as complex, as contradictory, as awful, as brilliant, as tortured and as sharp as Patricia Highsmith’s, it’s really worth spending some time with her, in her house, seeing how she ticks. Because she’s got some things to say, and she knows how to get your attention.”

May 3 – June 8

https://www.ensemble.com.au/shows/switzerland/

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