Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London SW1
Opened 29 September, 2008

Peter Webber’s 2003 film of Girl With A Pearl Earring is more than another period chick-flick featuring the near-obligatory brooding Colin Firth. In Tracy Chevalier’s speculative-historical story, the affair between Johannes Vermeer and his housemaid Griet is consummated on canvas only, in the form of the painting which gives the novel, film and now the play their title. The unblinking eye of the camera can tell its tale through implication. There is no need for virtually every character except Griet to step out of the scene and offer direct testimony to the audience along the lines of “I knew she was not like maids we’d had before” or, in perhaps the most precious line of the entire evening, Vermeer’s declaration that “Creativity held me captive”.
There is no call for such tactics in David Joss Buckley’s adaptation either, but there they are. Time and again, Buckley has Chevalier’s characters tell us rather than show us all these feelings, and when they do show us, in Joe Dowling’s production they often do so with a lack of subtlety almost shocking in comparison with their celluloid counterparts. Kimberley Nixon has either been directed to gasp many of her lines in ingenuous surprise or at best not directed to refrain from doing so; she is some way from the complex, inscrutable figure in Vermeer’s painting. As the artist’s lecherous patron van Ruijven, Niall Buggy is almost a 17th-century Benny Hill. Adrian Dunbar, though, has a craftsman’s earnestness and physicality as Vermeer, and Sara Kestelman does a similarly effective job as his mother-in-law and, effectively, business manager.
Peter Mumford lights most of the evening as a Vermeer painting: from the side, with an apparent light source around 1.4m off the ground. His set is housed on a stage revolve, the checkerboard patterns of its floor oddly taken up at the back and sides of the stage in cutout flats which look more like something from a 1960s housing estate. The actors do not always seem comfortable with the set and props: on press night, derisive audience laughter greeted Vermeer peering through his new camera obscura with a blackout cloth still over its lens, and several of the family had to save a table from toppling off the slightly raised revolve. This would-be Vermeer is at best a van Meegeren forgery.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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