The Talented Mr Ripley

Patricia Highsmith, adapted by Mark Leipacher and the ensemble
The Faction
Northern Stage, Newcastle

Christopher Hughes as Tom Ripley
Christopher Hughes as Tom Ripley with the Ensemble
The Ensemble with Christopher Hughes
Christopher Hughes (Tom Ripley) and Christopher York (Dickie Greenleaf)

Patricia Highsmith wrote The Talented Mr Ripley in 1955, it became a film (starring Matt Damon, Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow, directed Anthony Minghella) in 1999 and this production was first performed by The Faction at the New Diorama Theatre in January and February 2015.

What The Faction (an ensemble which—in their own words—develops their productions by “throwing classics against the wall of our time and seeing what bounces back”) has done is move the play from a third person narrative within the confines of a stage and break the fourth wall by having Mr Ripley (Christopher Hughes) address the audience directly.

There is also some use of physical theatre techniques and a very non-naturalistic set (designed by Holly Pigott)—a raised platform with a hole in the middle which serves as a swimming pool, a means of entrance and exit (and anything else as needed), and behind this raised area is a shadowy row of what, among other things, looks like a rail of clothes. This shadow, in fact, is important, for, even though the playing area is surrounded by a full lighting rig so that there is no attempt to disguise the theatricality of it all, shadow plays an important part in creating an effectively threatening atmosphere with, for example, dark figures in trench-coats and trilbies who stand, arms folded and faces obscured. Gangsters or policemen? Spies? Who knows?

We see all that happens through the eyes of Tom Ripley. The book was never a “Who Done It?” because we know very well who did, but more of a “Will He Get Away with It?” for, of course, he doesn’t know.

One of the first things he says to us, the audience—and he repeats it often—is, “have you ever had the feeling that you’re being followed?” Those dark, trench-coated figures…

With themes of homosexuality (in the 'fifties—a bit dodgy); scenes which change, almost at the drop of a hat, from New York to places throughout Italy, and to Paris; murders carried out by a boat’s oar and an ashtray; a large cast of characters (although played by only seven actors); the fact that our “hero” is a bit of a psycho and definitely a multiple-murderer; when the passage of time is, at best, not clear, this is a complex piece, dark and with moments of very black humour.

Having been sent to Italy (paid for, of course) by Dickie Greenleaf's father to persuade his son to return to New York, Tom Ripley is drawn into the hedonistic lifestyle of the American ex-pats and commits not one but three murders. What does he do?

He has no plan. He lives by his wits. Opportunities present themselves and he takes them, dealing with the consequences as they occur, and if at times we are feeling “what the **** is going on?”, we are simply reflecting the confusion in his mind.

As a piece of theatre exploring the mind of a particular individual, then this production works effectively; as a version or reading of Highsmith’s novel, however, I’m not sure it adds anything to our understanding or appreciation. But that’s probably not the point anyway.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan