As one of Australia’s leading theatre directors, Sarah Goodes has worked with many of the industry’s most impressive thespians. And that’s not limited to talent from her side of the ditch – Goodes says she has directed many a Kiwi throughout her career. “I find that I’m always drawn to New Zealand actors,” she says.
Among them is powerhouse performer Sarah Peirse. “I saw Sarah Peirse in the film Rain in the early 2000s and became obsessed with her and that film,” Goodes recalls. With the events unfolding during a family’s holiday at the seaside, the film – in which Peirse plays the dissatisfied and detached wife and mother, Kate – made such an impression on Goodes that it motivated her to travel to New Zealand to rent a bach. “My partner and I had just had a baby, we rented a bach on the wild west coast of the South Island in Charleston. They had a collection of DVDs of all of the classic New Zealand films – it was great.”
Goodes directed Peirse in the 2014 Sydney Theatre Company production of Switzerland, a thriller written by the celebrated Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith and inspired by renowned master crime novelist, Patricia Highsmith. The show was revived in 2016 for Melbourne Theatre Company, and now it comes to Aotearoa, presented by Auckland Theatre Company this September, with the support of MiNDFOOD as presenting partner.
Set in the Swiss Alps, the story unfolds when Edward, an ambitious young representative from Highsmith’s publisher, visits the author at her secluded home, on a mission to convince her to write one final Tom Ripley novel. As the two engage in a battle of wits, the play delves into themes of artistry, identity and the blurred lines between fiction and reality. “It’s a thriller about the creative act, about how a writer has to actively reach down into the dark corners of the human psyche in order to create those characters in those worlds,” says Goodes. The atmosphere intensifies as the characters’ motivations and pasts are gradually revealed, leading to unexpected twists and turns.
“When we first did this play in 2014, we were caught off guard by just how popular it was … mainly because it put a very unlikeable older woman in a lead role and they were surprised by how audiences responded to that,” Goodes says, adding that in the years since, we’ve not only seen more female characters in lead roles driving plots, but we’ve also seen an increase in stories that aren’t afraid to make these leads complex and unsavoury. “Patricia Highsmith was pretty mean, pretty unlikable, so it’s going to be interesting to hear how that bounces off the times, because from 2014 to now – well, a lot’s happened, hasn’t it? That’s the other exciting thing about theatre is how it resonates with the times.”
By now, Peirse and Goodes are intimately familiar with the play, but Goodes says reviving it requires steeping themselves in the world of Highsmith, her writing and her characters. “Ultimately it’s a journey into the dark recesses of Patricia Highsmith’s creative mind,” Goodes says, “so you need to re-immerse yourself in her writing, you need to re-immerse yourself in the themes and ideas of the human psyche, of what people are capable of … of darkness, of violence, and humans’ capacity for violence. And the fragility of a woman alone, who takes refuge in the world of her writing … For the spell to work, you’ve all got to really go back into that psychological space.”
Switzerland comes not long after Goodes directed another play of Murray-Smith’s for Sydney Theatre Company, Julia, bringing the story behind former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard’s ‘misogyny speech’ to life. Looking forward to working with Peirse again, Goodes is intrigued to see how her portrayal of Highsmith continues to evolve.
“Sarah’s one of the best actors around. I just think she’s extraordinary … and incredibly, incredibly exciting to work with. So going back into that’s just a complete joy.”
ASB Waterfront Theatre
19 September – 7 October