All the best monsters are consummate performers. Think Shakespeare’s Richard III, stylishly murdering his way to the throne, or the deadly flair of Goldberg in The Birthday Party. Tom Ripley, the brilliant sociopath created by Patricia Highsmith 60 years ago, is no different. He lives or dies on his ability to impersonate, relying on his quick-thinking skill as a performer to quite literally get away with murder.
The Talented Mr Ripley, then, makes for compelling stage material. Tom is essentially a showman, if an awkwardly intense one. We first meet him in a New York bar, head twisting over his shoulder, convinced he’s being watched. It turns out he is, but not by who he expected. Instead, a wealthy businessman offers to pay Tom to bring his son Dickie home from Italy, where he’s run away on an extended European jaunt. Snatching at the opportunity, Tom soon finds himself in idyllic Mongibello, where jealous obsession with charming, carefree Dickie (an effortlessly suave Adam Howden) turns an increasingly murderous shade of green.
The Faction and director Mark Leipacher have wisely fastened on the narrative’s more performative qualities in their new adaptation. Tom, played with fidgeting intensity by Christopher Hughes, is forever trying on new roles, testing a new sweep of the hair or trick of the tongue. We are first of all his audience, the crowd of attentive eyeballs that he fears and desires in equal measure. The more immersed Tom becomes in his performance, adopting Dickie’s identity bit by bit, the more he revels in the display. As an actor thirsts for the adrenaline rush of the stage, Tom is hooked on pretending.
This emphasis also lends a distanced, theatrical gloss to the protagonist’s cool and unrepentant acts of violence. To him, as to us, the murders he carries out are little more than dramatic punctuation marks. In one intriguing but slightly clumsy device, Leipacher repeatedly positions Tom as the star of his own (presumably imagined) movie, cutting and reshooting crucial sequences in his trajectory. While jarring, it hints economically at Tom’s emotional dislocation from reality; a brutal murder might as well be a thrilling plot twist.
The language of economy is one that characterises The Faction’s storytelling. Their streamlined version of Highsmith’s novel is loathe to waste so much as a second, rattling over the plot’s terrain at sometimes breakneck speed. The upside is that we move at the same pace as Tom’s nervously frenetic mind, seeing the world through his rapidly blinking eyes. Such furious velocity, however, also makes it easy to miss things. Peripheral characters zoom past and the kaleidoscope of European cities in the second half becomes a dizzy haze.
But for those familiar with the often adapted tale, The Faction offer an engaging enough take on this durable material. As ever, the ensemble manage to do a lot with a little, transforming the stylish, stripped back design – just a raised white rectangle, supplemented by Christopher Withers’ evocative shafts of light – into countless different settings. It’s when the focus is on storytelling rather than speed, though, that The Talented Mr Ripley is most absorbing.
The Talented Mr Ripley is running in rep with The Faction’s productions of Romeo and Juliet and Joan of Arc.