Writer: Simon Stephens
Director: Walter Meierjohann
Unsold seats at the Donmar Warehouse are a rarity. Top quality theatre at reasonable prices in an auditorium that holds few more than 200 leads to high demand, so the first sight of the space only a quarter full provides an unnerving experience and unnerving is exactly what Simon Stephens’ new play is intended to be.
The Donmar’s production is described as an “installation”, possibly transferable to other venues after here. There are no live performances. Running for just over an hour, each show observes strict social distancing rules and theatre staff make sure that they are seen to be enforcing them. Hand sanitisers are provided. All the Donmar’s normal seating and the stage are removed so that it looks like what it must once have been – a warehouse. The audience is seated on wooden chairs, singly or in pairs in their bubbles, well spaced around the floor. Headphones are provided and face masks are mandatory at all times within the building.
The play is an adaptation of the 1995 dystopian novel, Blindness, by José Saramago, a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Stephens’ version begins like an audio book, with Juliet Stevenson telling the story in the third person of a man who suddenly loses his sight while driving his car; he is helped by another man who takes advantage of the situation and steals the car, before going blind himself. The focus then turns to the ophthalmologist treating the cases, who also goes blind and Stevenson takes the role of his wife, the only character in the story who, inexplicably, remains fully sighted.
Walter Meierhohann’s production is designed to give the audience the experience of blindness, with several prolonged blackouts and to emphasise the power afforded by sightedness. However, the story works on another level by chronicling the helplessness of government to respond effectively to an unprecedented health crisis and highlighting, in considerable detail, the fragility of a social order that can quickly collapse. Some of these themes are all too fresh in our minds and wrapped up inside Stephens’ rich and insightful script, they become engrossing.
Binaural sound effects are not a particular novelty, but sound designers Ben and Max Ringham put them to spectacular use here. In the play’s longest and most disturbing sequence, set in a disintegrating hospital ward, Stevenson can be heard at one moment screaming in anger in the distance and, at the next, whispering gently into our ears. The temptation to turn and look her in the face is often irresistible. Her range is astonishing and, if her performance is one-dimensional, it is only such in the most technical sense. Lizzie Clachan’s design has a futuristic feel, focussing on thin strips of light that descend to head level, and Jessica Hung Han Yun’s lighting creates startling effects to break into the darkness.
In the final analysis, is this installation any different from a radio play? Yes it is significantly different and better, not just due to the visual effects, but predominantly because the experience is shared through being part of a live audience. There is still a long way to go, but theatre is on its way back.
Runs until 22 August 2020