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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Girl With A Pearl Earring
Haymarket Theatre Autumn 2008

The unexpected failure of the musical Marguerite led to a suddenly empty theatre, and the limited run of this new play, which was not intended for the West End and has little to offer West End audiences.

Tracy Chevalier's 1999 novel imagined a back story to Vermeer's famous painting of a girl looking innocently or coquettishly (depending on how you view it) over her shoulder. She created a housemaid whose instinctive artistic sensibility led to an unconsummated intimacy with the painter, producing not only the painting but various mildly melodramatic complications.

It mixed romantic fantasy with a refreshing realism - at the end the maid marries her butcher boyfriend and, left the famous earrings in Vermeer's will, pawns them.

The 2003 film captured some of the dreamlike atmosphere of the chaste romance (omitting the ending), largely through the use of a lot of gauzy close-ups of a mainly silent Scarlett Johansson as the maid/model Griet.

And now David Joss Buckley's stage adaptation brings it all down to earth with a thud, delivering neither the romance nor the coolly distant observation.

Buckley simplifies the story, cutting some minor characters and the ironic ending, but more significantly he simplifies all the characters into single dimensions, and then has them announce openly the very little there is to know about them.

Each of the characters - in addition to the painter and the model, the cast includes the painter's wife, daughter and mother-in-law, his randy patron, another maid and the butcher boy - repeatedly says in the simplest terms the simple things he or she is feeling. Everyone except Griet is given several short soliloquies to tell us what they think about her.

By telling us everything, Buckley leaves nothing to be dramatised, nothing for us to discover, and nothing for the actors to do.

And Buckley has coarsened the characters as he simplified them. In the novel and film, Vermeer first notices Griet when she displays an unexpected sensitivity to colour and composition, but here he's flirting with her from the start. The Griet of the novel and film is a bit of a mystery (like the girl in the painting), but director Joe Dowling has led Kimberley Nixon to play her as a rather ordinary spirited teenager, taking away all her ambiguity.

With nothing to play beyond the surface of the script, the actors resort either to broad overacting (Niall Buggy as the patron) or just remembering their lines and not bumping into the furniture. Adrian Dunbar poses a lot, as if he were playing a swashbuckler rather than a painter, and even Sara Kestelman, who is incapable of giving a bad performance, can do nothing with the matriarch.

If you know the basic outline of the novel - painter sees something in maid and paints her, causing some friction in his marriage - you will find absolutely nothing more in this staging. And I've just told you the outline.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Girl With the Pearl Earring - Haymarket 2008