Wednesday, 1 October 2008

REVIEW: “Girl with a Pearl Earring”

The problem with adaptations is that they will inevitably and almost certainly be compared unfavourably with the original work. After all, the original is what the creator intended the piece to be, so how can a reworking dare hope to improve on their artistic vision?

If you’re a cultural bum like the RZ, however, this qualm is frequently moot: you can’t compare an adaptation to the original if you’ve never read it/seen it before. Case in point? The fact that the RZ didn’t outright despise David Joss Buckley’s new stage edition of Tracy Chevalier’s historical novel Girl with a Pearl Earring, currently running at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, is a testament to the fact that he is clearly missing out on something that the critical establishment has partaken in.

For those who, like the RZ, have no idea what all the fuss is about, the story is simple: Griet’s (Kimberley Nixon) father is a tile painter who, after going blind, pulled some strings and got her a job as a maid at master painter Vermeer’s (Adrian Dunbar) house. Not quite sure of her place as a maid (she speaks her mind quite a bit) and uncomfortably Protestant in an unforgivingly Catholic neighbourhood of their Dutch town, Griet learns of art and philosophy from the master while cleaning his studio, eventually becoming the subject for one of his paintings, much to the household’s displeasure and the great joy of leering patron Van Ruijven. There’s a subplot involving whether or not Griet will marry butcher’s apprentice Pieter, but for the most part it’s a story of jealousy and artistic beauty - which is probably why everybody seems to think it’s so darned lame. Griet’s not sleeping with Vermeer (or at least it’s not acknowledged), and the whole thing makes much ado about nothing: from the beginning we see the supporting characters making asides along the lines of “I knew from when I saw her - her beauty - that she would end up tearing the house apart.” Given that the entire play is just over two hours with the interval, such conceptual clubbing is unnecessary and detracts from the natural growth of dramatic tension.

Since enough other people have highlighted the negative, let’s talk about some positives: Peter Mumford’s simple revolve set is effective, and though a bit on the pretentious side, his checkerboard walls and tiled floor symbolise the contrasts of the text. Mumford also chose to utilise a relatively minimalist lighting design that enhances, rather than obscures, the locations and events. Christopher Gunning’s incidental score is appealing and well used, and the cast (particularly Sara Kestelman as house matron Maria Thins) give it everything they’ve got. And, contrary to some other members of the internet, the RZ was decidedly not bored. Not enthralled, but not bored.

To be honest, the RZ wonders if Girl with a Pearl Earring is a victim of location as much as any flaws in the material: had the show gone up at the Menier or the King’s Head or any choice venue where the production would have been smaller (and indeed more effective from the venue’s intimacy) and the tickets cheaper (versus the Haymarket’s standard West End rates), would the majority of the press and public been kinder to it? It’s hard to tell, but the RZ paid the same as he did for Riflemind (nothing) and he was quite happy to sit through the second act at Girl.

Even so, let's not fool ourselves: Sondheim did the whole tormented art and beauty gig better.

Where: Theatre Royal Haymarket
When: Until November. M-Sa @ 19:30, W/Sa @ 14:30
How Much: £17.50-£45
Concessions: Day seats in the stalls for £20 from 10AM, seniors can advance book matinees for £20, students can book upper circle for £15 on the day.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £20. The material’s not perfect, but it’s not as bad as everybody says it is, and the production values and acting are lovely.
RZ Other Notes: That doesn’t change the fact that the Haymarket’s had four less than well received productions (The Country Wife, The Sea, Marguerite, Girl with a Pearl Earring) in a row. And it doesn’t change the fact that the RZ is still more interested in the upcoming Treasure Island more than any of the Haymarket’s other offerings from the past year.

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