29 September 2008

Girl with a Pearl Earring - Haymarket Theatre, Friday 26th September


Delft, Holland, 1665. After her father is blinded in an explosion, 17-year-old Griet must work to support her family. She becomes a maid in the home of Johannes Vermeer and gradually attracts the master painter’s attention. Though worlds apart in upbringing, education and social standing, Vermeer recognizes Griet’s intuitive understanding of color and light and slowly draws her into the mysterious world of his paintings. Vermeer is a perfectionist, often taking months to finish a painting. His shrewish mother-in-law struggles to maintain the family’s lavish lifestyle on the income from his meagre output. Seeing that Griet inspires Vermeer, she takes the dangerous decision to allow their clandestine relationship to develop.

Griet also contends with the attentions of Vermeer’s patron, the wealthy and lascivious van Ruijven, who is frustrated that his money does not buy him control over the artist. While Griet falls increasingly under Vermeer’s spell, she cannot be sure of his feelings for her. The Machiavellian van Ruijven, sensing the intimacy between master and maid, gleefully contrives a commission for Vermeer to paint Griet alone. The result will be one of the greatest paintings ever created, but at what cost?
Read the book? Yes. Seen the film? Yes. In which case, don't spend your hard-earned on a ticket for this because you won't get anything you haven't had already. This production, imported from Richmond Theatre via the Cambridge Arts Theatre, has obviously just been thrown on quickly in order to fill the gap made by the "unexpected" closure of Marguerite (although not that unexpected if you happened to see it), and basically does what it says on the tin and nothing else. Its scheduled to run only six weeks, and is obviously aimed at people who enjoyed the book/film and fancy having the story re-told to them without the effort of having to turn any pages or schlep down to the DVD rental shop. However, because the story is pared down to its barest essentials, you might come away wishing you'd gone to the effort. Gone are the background, middle distance and foreground layers, and gone are the coats of varnish that add gloss and depth. The end of the story is cut off raggedly and tacked onto the very beginning in an effort to give a vague feeling of "flashback" and the "vegetable chopping" scene is moved slightly out of its place in the book, but otherwise that's really all the adaptor has thought it worth doing. Dialogue is lifted straight from the book, although there are times when characters address the audience directly in asides when their thoughts, feelings or actions can't be rendered in actual conversation - this is a terribly lazy way of recreating a masterpiece. If this conceit were done skillfully and kept up all the way through the play, it might be a way of papering over some of the more obvious failings of the script, but it happens just enough times for you to start getting used to it and then falls by the wayside.

Kimberley Nixon makes a fair stab at Griet, the eponymous heroine, but doesn't catch the awkwardness or shyness of a young girl suddenly removed from the world she knows and transplanted into the role of a servant in the world of her social superiors. She comes across as rather lippy to the Vermeers rather than anxious to please. Adrian Dunbar is a dead loss as the enigmatic Vermeer - there is no mystery, no sex appeal, no broody, misunderstood genius. There should be deep shade and the occasional sudden ray of light to highlight the shadows - all the chiaroscuro of Vermeer's paintings themselves, in fact - but there's nothing; no detail, no middle ground. Vermeer should be a whole palette of shades, tones and hues, but is played here as the equivalent of magnolia emulsion. Note to the costume department - his shoes are obviously slightly too loose as, at the performance we saw, he sported a modern pair of short black socks over his tights. Or maybe his feet were just cold. The great Sara Kestelman was really just wasted as Maria Thins - she wasn't at all stretched by the role and was more or less reduced to the role of chorus, commenting on the action but never engaging in it directly. Lesley Vickerage did her best to flesh out the poorly written role of Catherina but never managed to rise above puppet-dom. Maggie Service as Tanneke was lucky in that her dialogue gave her the opportunity to be funny and acidic and worldly-wise.
The set was serviceable, I suppose - a small revolve showing the kitchen, the studio and the salon, but was surrounded on all sides by some weird curtaining that looked rather like camoflauge material made out of black plastic squares linked together chequerboard style. No effort whatsover seemed to be made to light the sets in the manner of Vermeer's paintings, which was a major loss to the production as a whole. The one scene where lighting was effective (three baby spots trained on lit candles) was all too brief and far too late to save an extremely dull lighting plot.
In effect, in its depth and scope, this production showed as much relationship to its origin as a painting by numbers set does to a Old Master; on the surface they may be vaguely similar, but one takes masterly skill, years of dedication and great mental and physical effort and the other is just a daub.
What the critics thought (not a lot, basically!):

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