Writer: Patricia Highsmith
Adaptor/Director: Mark Leipacher
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
Patricia Highsmith’s most famous literary creation, the troubled psychopath Tom Ripley, was so popular that the author wrote him into four of her novels. But it is the first, The Talented Mr. Ripley, which is rightly regarded as the most compelling of the quartet.
The Faction’s physically inventive retelling, which first emerged in 2015 and was revived earlier this year at the Vaults Festival, sees Christopher Hughes playing the young Tom Ripley, commissioned by a wealthy New York family to travel to the Italian resort of Mongibello to retrieve the family’s wayward heir, Dickie Greenleaf.
In these opening moments, we see a different Ripley to those of other adaptations, or even Highsmith’s novel. Hughes is nervy, self-doubting – and very English in accent. But he is also quick thinking, using a breaking of the fourth wall to highlight (with an occasionally heavy hand) how he socially engineers his way into Greenleaf Senior’s good graces.
There is a fair amount of cruft in Act I, including a superfluous poolside discussion between Ripley and a friend (Emma Jay Thomas) discussing his departure – a scene which reveals nothing of note about the character, and contributes nothing else to the plot.
Such a scene also illustrates some of the play’s audibility issues. Wilton’s acoustics take some getting used to for plays, and Hughes’s tendency to gabble through lines in the early parts of the play (mirrored by several others) makes for difficult listening.
Once Ripley finds his prey, Dickie (Christopher York), reclining on a beach with Natasha Rickman as his on-off girlfriend Marge, matters improve substantially. Leipacher keeps a firm hold on the sexual ambiguity in Highsmith’s novel: Hughes makes Ripley’s fascination with the mega rich playboy part envy, part hero worship and with a smattering of sexual fascination.
That the play feels unbalanced is due in no small part to the dramatic action which sees Ripley commit murder. On the stage, it is a natural point after which to place an interval: but the consequences of that action, and Ripley’s attempts to cover up his crime, contain a far richer story and more scope for The Faction’s theatrical techniques.
Thus, the second act is a huge step upwards in storytelling quality. The reason for Hughes making Ripley speak with an English accent becomes clear, allowing his lightning fast changes from being Ripley to impersonating Dickie to come across. York and Hughes also work together well, the two actors often coming together to create moments where Ripley’s interpretation of Greenleaf exposes the character’s inner turmoils.
The resulting cat-and-mouse game highlights the charms of Highsmith’s deliciously amoral creation, as Ripley criss-crosses continental Europe laying false trails and eluding capture. Hughes, with his dimple-cheeked charm turning to steely-eyed determination in a trice, concocts a version of Tom Ripley that redeems Act I’s deficiencies.
While this is a far from perfect piece of theatre, one is left with a sense of why Patricia Highsmith’s antihero has been so beloved since his first appearance in print 64 years ago. It will be hard, when rereading her novels, to shake Hughes’s version of the character from one’s mind.
Continues until 25 May 2019 | Image: Contributed