There’s a challenge to taking a story as well-known as Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley and making something fresh and new without losing the spark of the original. But I’m pleased to say that Mark Leipacher has achieved that dynamic mix in a production that is both rich and zesty, full of energy and dark, hard lines.
There is a real physicality to the performance with incredible feats of physical stamina from the cast. Holly Pigott’s innovative and unusual minimalistic set design ensures that every character is stretching for, and reaching, a pitch of physical presence as they climb and fall, crawl and stagger around the oppressive, central white cube that becomes everything from a lavish apartment to a beach and (of course) a row boat stained with blood. The set is defined by the cast who become the scenery and the backdrop to the stellar performances of Christopher York and Christopher Hughes.
Ripley is a man without a personality. He spends his life being followed, constantly on the brink of arrest for previous unnamed misdemeanours while his parent’s death and aunt’s hostility towards him become overpowering visions inside his head. Despite his seemingly friendly and likeable personality, Ripley is never at ease. He is constantly adapting, needing to be liked, secreting himself into the lives of others and sucking their personalities away, wearing them like clothes. It is only when he comes up against the blanket indifference of wealth that is Christopher York’s Dickie Greenleaf that things begin to get tricky. Ripley begins to lose control as Dickie’s great, bright spotlight of attention turns away from Ripley and in a fission of lust, love, jealousy and betrayal, Ripley does the unthinkable, slipping into Dickie’s life like a hand into a glove and slipping off his own guilt and remorse in one blood-slicked movement.
I know the story well, having read the book and seen the film, but I can’t help wondering if, without prior knowledge, the production would have been as effective. The pace is fast, yet it lingers over the emotional and psychological aspects of the story, sometimes to the extent that it loses the route. In many ways, this adds to the whirlwind of tension by building it up to an excruciating peak, but it also prevents the audience from fully grasping the narrative. Is this important? Possibly not. The most important parts of the play come from inside Ripley’s head. It’s this insider knowledge of his inner fears that drive the play forward and this is depicted superbly by Christopher Hughes’s terrifyingly affable and funny Ripley. Offsetting this is Christopher York whose portrayal of Dickie is superbly relaxed and pinpoints the shallowness of the character. The way wealth oozes from him. Dickie’s never had to rely on anyone and that includes girlfriends and friends. York gets this across through an intensity of physical expression. Sophie Spreadbury is also excellent as Marge with her level headedness, vulnerability and polite conviction delicately handled.
The whole cast works as one in this production and this is where the strength and originality rest. Not only are they actors on a stage, but they are acrobats and dancers, using every piece of physical space to express this torturous and exciting story.