Girl With A Pearl Earring, Theatre Royal Haymarket, London
Creditors, Donmar Warehouse, London
Waste, Almeida, London
The play of the book of the painting lacks lustre
Sunday 05 October 2008
The jewel is nestled in the half-shadow of her neck in Vermeer's famous portrait, Girl with a Pearl Earring. It catches a spark of light as she glances over her shoulder. In that blue turban, she is poised between a Madonna's purity and electrifying sensuality, her large dark eyes harbouring apprehension – or is it a teasing glint of desire? Novelist Tracy Chevalier became intrigued by this Mona Lisa of the North, imagining her a maid in the artist's household, infatuating him with her beauty.
Nothing scintillates, however, in the West End's lumpen dramatisation of that story (quite different from the film). Spotlights glaringly fail to recreate anything like Vermeer's gently side-lit Dutch interiors, and scriptwriter David Joss Buckley seems to be as clueless as the director Joe Dowling about the fine arts. Kimberley Nixon as the serving-girl, Griet, learns a cock-eyed lesson about her master's camera obscura, concluding that it contains a picture of his picture. Meanwhile, Adrian Dunbar's Vermeer throws a large crumpled cloth over his wet canvas. Presumably he had to call that one "Maid a Pig's Ear". To give him his due, Dunbar has a gentle magnetism, but Nixon is acting by numbers. Very dull.
In Strindberg's chamber play, Creditors – staged by Alan Rickman – Tom Burke's Adolph is a painter having a mental breakdown in a mouldering seaside hotel. Visited by a virulently misogynistic patriarch – Owen Teale's Gustav, who poses as a physician –Adolph veers between adoration and jealous fury regarding his free-thinking and fast-rising wife, Anna Chancellor's Tekla. The start and finish are slightly stilted. Teale's Iago-like destructiveness could be more creepily insinuating. Nonetheless, the black comedy bites when David Greig's new English version hits its stride. Chancellor is mercurial – tough and tender, really complex flesh and blood – and the slippages are disturbingly subtle between slice-of-life marital rows and possible hallucinations.
Watching Harley Granville Barker's 1920s drama, Waste – about a visionary statesman and a ruinous sex scandal – I didn't always care about Henry Trebell's crusade to disestablish the Church of England. Yet, all in all, this is another forgotten gem unearthed by the Almeida and it makes a welcome change – presenting a historic political argument without a directorial update to highlight its topicality.
Will Keen is riveting as the weirdly cold, cynical yet passionate Trebell. His private scenes – with Nancy Carroll as his coquettish amour and Phoebe Nicholls as his spinster sister – range from the witty and sexy to the distressingly bleak, and ultimately suicidal despair. Sam West's production is superlative, with space-defying mansions on a mini-revolve (designed by Peter McKintosh) and a 15-strong cast without a weak link. This group portrait of a Cabinet in formation – where ideals are brought down by sleaze, blunders, cunning power games and sheer pragmatism – is sharp-eyed and, in many ways, timeless.
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' (0845-481 1870) to 1 Nov; 'Creditors' (0870 060 6624) to 15 Nov; 'Waste' (020-7359 4404) to 15 Nov
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