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No. 17 The Theatre Set Patricia Highsmith Built

Updated: Feb 2, 2019

“People, feelings, everything! Double! Two people in each person. There's also a person exactly the opposite of you, like the unseen part of you, somewhere in the world, and he waits in ambush.” ― Patricia Highsmith, Strangers on a Train

There’s a piece of waterfront property near my home that has been for sale for a number of years. It is on a busy road but the back of the property overlooks the Puget Sound. I have often fantasized about putting, what I refer to as, a Patricia Highsmith house on the property. What faces the busy road is nondescript even unwelcoming, but when you get to the water side of the house it is a completely different story.

Patricia Highsmith’s house in Tegna, by architect Tobias Ammann

Highsmith worked with architect Tobias Ammann to create a home for herself in Switzerland. On the outside it is as foreboding and haunting as her stories. The unwelcoming bunker - like side of the building has tiny windows and no warmth but when you get to the side you can’t see from the road, there are large beautiful windows and open spaces so the architecture ends up having two very distinct personalities - not unlike Highsmith herself who craved isolation but equally wanted adoration.

“The design of the house reflected her personality in some respects, says Ammann. From the outside it looked quite stark, but at the back it was glass and opened out over a beautiful valley. Similarly, she was always very distant and did not like to shake hands. She was fearful of the world and of people. But I’m sure once you got to know her she could be charming in her own way. After the house was built, she kept ringing me up complaining about little things that had to be done – this went on two years after it had been finished– But eventually I realize that she wanted the company. I always spoke to her in German, sometimes an Italian, which was not so good, and I would go over to the house about once a month, to drink whiskey. I remember she always had a very good whiskey for her guests, but she drank a cheaper one.”

— Beautiful Shadow: a life of Patricia Highsmith by Andrew Wilson

Today I came across a Q & A with the set designer for The Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Switzerland by Joanna Murray-Smith. Switzerland is about Patricia Highsmith and a confrontation she has with a young man who visits her home. The set designer, Michael Scott - Mitchell is also an architect and he used the contrasting vibes from Highsmith’s home in Switzerland to create her fictional space on stage. This includes the rarity of having a claustrophobic full ceiling on stage. This is a complicated proposition from a lighting designers point of view – how do you light the actors?

The most distinct aspect of the set is how Highsmith’s writing desk is placed at the apex of a triangle so there is a clear physical journey that the male character has to make to reach Highsmith and his passage narrows as the play proceeds.

“The dynamic of the space is deliberately skewed towards her desk. From above, the set is in a V-shape and the V pushes towards the desk, which sits at one side of the stage. From the desk, the room expands quite radically out. So, one end of the room is very deep, while the other end (where the desk is) is incredibly shallow. In terms of how the dynamics work within the space, the desk is Patricia's domain and Edward is the intruder entering the space, which he does from the deep side. He stands, hovering within that deeper area, trying to negotiate his way towards the desk. That spatial dynamic is incredibly important.” --- Michael Scott Mitchell

The opportunity for an architect to immerse himself in the unique house of a great writer and to then have the opportunity to recreate the eccentric mood of the building physically and thematically on stage strikes me as an exhilarating study in the duality of the writer, her characters, and her home.


Sydney Theatre Magazine:

Q & A with Designer Michael Scott Mitchell




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