This is a diminution of a prose work of art which is vocalised in the narrative of a young serving girl in the 1666 household of Jan Vermeer in Delft. She is assigned as a slave, becomes enamoured of painting technique and the artist’s mystery, and is removed as a threat to domestic stability. The momentum lies in the slow thrum of her artistic and sensual arousal.
There’s absolutely no sense of that in Joe Dowling’s plodding production, which stakes out the narrative in a literal art gallery of Vermeer references, translucent lighting and cheap gags. At least the 2003 film, remarkable for the beauty of the cinematography and the pouting, over-ripe and sullen ambiguity of Johannson’s breakthrough performance as Griet, the teenage tile-maker’s daughter, created its own raison d’etre.
That over-the-shoulder look, lips apart – a signal of sexual intent - eyes shining, face willing, suggesting the Mona Lisa of the northern hemisphere, is totally unremarked in the game, cheeky little performance of Kimberley Nixon – Sophy Hutton in the BBC’s Cranford – as the grovelling Griet. She is sweetly innocent without ever reverberating as a conduit of artistic temperament or indeed her own sentiments.
The programme reproduces some of the great paintings and the show dutifully creates the Vermeer effect in Maggie Service’s milkmaid costume and “The Little Street” as a front cloth. But Adrian Dunbar as Vermeer, oddly confined by a hesitant gait and a terrible wig, soft-pedals the troubled painter into dull nonentity. He dreams of dressing up Griet up as a transfigured model, but the play finds no way of expressing this as part of his social and artistic inspiration, or indeed her emotional dilemma.
Great troupers Niall Buggy and Sara Kestelman pitch in colourfully as a lascivious patron and a dominant square-jawed mother-in-law, but their best efforts are in vain. The set and lighting are the work of Peter Mumford, the superb costumes by Fotini Dimou, and there is willing support from Jonathan Bailey as Griet’s devoted butcher boy and Lesley Vickerage as Vermeer’s long-suffering wife.
- Michael Coveney