Article Title:The Talented Mr Ripley
Author or Credit:Chris Banks
Published on:13th March 2004 - 12:00 pm
Story ID:174
Text:Patricia Highsmith, the lesbian novelist whose novel The Talented Mr Ripley has spawned two film adaptations as well as this Auckland Theatre Company production, was a very interesting lady. Often writing gay-themed novels with male protagonists, Highsmith had a penchant for creating misogynist sociopaths whose infatuations with other men led to stalking and murder. Her first novel Strangers on a Train – spun in 1951 by Alfred Hitchcock into one of the Master of Suspense's greatest movies – told the story of Bruno Anthony, a sophisticated-yet-disturbed mother's boy who becomes fixated with tennis star Guy Haines after a chance meeting on a train. The Talented Mr Ripley was her fourth novel. Tom Ripley and Bruno Anthony share many similarities, although Ripley's fixation with the man he is sent to Italy to pursue, Richard Greenleaf, goes further than obsessive love – he wants to be him also. Believing Ripley to be an old college chum, wealthy shipping magnate Herbert Greenleaf sends Ripley to Italy to bring his wayward son home. On arrival, Ripley becomes captivated by Richard, envious of his lifestyle, and deeply jealous of his girlfriend Marge Sherwood. Anthony Minghella's 1999 film of The Talented Mr Ripley cast the seemingly-benevolent Matt Damon in the role of Tom Ripley and Jude Law as Greenleaf, with the homoerotic elements kept taut, tense and bubbling under the surface. The ATC's stage version, directed by Oliver Driver and playing at the Maidment Theatre in Auckland, is more explicit in its depictions but somehow manages to have less impact, despite the fascinating angle writer Phillis Nagy has taken in her adaptation. While Minghella's film was a thriller which relied on a fast-moving plot, the stage version places us firmly inside Tom Ripley's head for what could have been an incisive character study of a man of a thousand identities, unfortunately some of the performances don't quite reach the disturbing levels that the script, staging and expressionistic lighting design suggest they could. We only see events from Ripley's point of view, meaning we are constantly tuned into his inner monologue. Seeing as this is a character who is charming, boyish and handsome on the outside while being filled with hate, rage and self-loathing on the inside, being a spectator to his deepest thoughts for two and a half hours should be a living nightmare, yet it remains cold. Ripley has a lot of interesting things to say, but Glen Drake's delivery gives us little empathy with what's beneath it all. As a result, when Ripley's behaviour turns psychotic, it seems purely mechanical. Chris Stewart's Greenleaf lacks the arrogance and charm that would make Ripley's motivations of love and hate towards him more believable. Ironically, the one event that has set tongues wagging about the play – a kiss that Greenleaf and Ripley share in the second half – seems arbitrary, its main function to send the mostly-heterosexual audience into a tittering frenzy for thirty seconds. By contrast, veteran players Stuart Devenie and Jennifer Ward-Lealand, playing a range of smaller roles, never fail to connect emotionally with the audience, even when the stylistic staging keeps them unmoving and at a distance. When playing Greenleaf's parents, Ward-Lealand's bored socialite mother recalls the great Agnes Moorehead, while Devenie's weary father has a Wellesian flair. Benjamin Farry as Freddie also has a wonderful presence, in a confident portrayal that doesn't invite comparisons with Minghella's film. Tom Ripley is a intriguing character, a man who ends up with everything, yet gains nothing, repellant yet charismatic. Such was the popularity of the original character, Highsmith went on to pen another four Ripley novels, one of which – Ripley's Game – has also been filmed twice, yet sadly there is little in this stage version to leave you wanting more of him. Chris Banks - 13th March 2004    
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