Inspired by Dutch artist Vermeer’s painting of the same name, Tracy Chevalier’s novel Girl With A Pearl Earring was a best-seller and went on to be adapted into a film starring Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson. Now Adrian Dunbar takes on the role of Vermeer in this new stage adaptation of Chevalier’s fictional account of the inspiration behind the painting.
Beginning at the end, when servant girl Griet finds she has been bequeathed the pearl earrings she once wore for Vermeer, David Joss Buckley’s stage adaptation then takes us back to the day the 17-year-old arrived in the Vermeer household to work as a maid for the artist and his family.
Chevalier’s tale charts the events that spring from Griet’s arrival that eventually culminate in the young girl posing for Vermeer in the familiar blue and yellow headdress and single pearl earring of the famous painting. To the chagrin of Vermeer’s childish daughter and feeble wife, the maid captures his artistic eye more than they ever could, causing resentment and heartbreak as she spends hours in his studio rather than cooking and cleaning downstairs.
Joss Buckley’s adaptation tells the story in part narration, with each character – except Griet herself – at times talking directly to the audience, revealing their thoughts on Griet’s arrival and her impact on the household. On a stage revolve, Peter Mumford’s set switches easily between studio, kitchen and lounge as the action is played out in each.
Stage newcomer Kimberley Nixon plays Griet as a surprisingly confident girl who is self-assured in her defiance of Vermeer’s daughter Cornelia and intrigued by her master’s work. At first tentative around him, she becomes increasingly eager to help him in his studio and unwilling to extract herself from the situation that others, including her young friend and rejected suitor Peter, can anticipate.
Dunbar’s Vermeer does not have the mysterious aloofness of Firth’s portrayal in the film. Rather, his depiction is of a friendly, open and welcoming man who is obsessed with his work above all else, including his family. In Griet he sees a fresh new subject to paint and becomes determined to do so, even if it could hurt his wife whom he has never painted. Beyond an occasional intimacy, it is not suggested that he loves the young maid who cleans his studio; his obsession is with painting her image, not with Griet herself. It is a lesson the wide-eyed Griet learns the hard way as events come to a head and the painting is finished.
As Vermeer’s patron Van Ruijven, Niall Buggy enlivens the stage with his larger-than-life portrayal of a ruddy-faced, portly, sleazy man who becomes as determined to have Griet as Vermeer is to paint her. Among the rest of the cast, Sara Kestelman as Vermeer’s hard-nosed mother-in-law Maria Thins and Maggie Service as Griet’s fellow maid Tanneke have their time in the spotlight.