Writer: Jose Saramago
Adapter: Simon Stephens
Director: Walter Meierjohann
Sometimes the lights need to be off in order to see. This adage lies at the heart of this extremely different theatrical event produced by The Donmar Warehouse in reply to a world that has been dark as a result of the global pandemic. A hymn to rebirth and renewal, it is a timely response to the world of arts and culture (as well as the rest of society) hopefully regaining some sort of normality soon. Blindness is a socially distanced audio-visual, immersive experience that is a feast for the eyes and ears.
The world is going dark. Inexplicably people are suffering instant blindness. It is spreading, infecting the population exponentially until the outbreak becomes epidemic and then pandemic. It is easy to see why Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago’s 1995 dystopian novel is fitting source material for this sound installation. Adapted by Simon Stephens the audience are immersed into the world of a global pandemic of blindness that is as much sensory as it is cerebral. Sat on the main stage of the theatre each audience member is equipped with their own headset throughout the seventy-minute journey. A simple looking set of strip lighting is suspended above; the chairs in bubbles of two placed two metres from the next; a torch under your seat in case you need to attract the attention of an usher.
The Orwellian style story begins quickly. A man instantly goes blind at a set of traffic lights. He visits his ophthalmologist who has never seen anything like it in his long career who then, himself, suffers the same fate the next day. When the state soldiers arrive to take him away his wife feigns the same condition and accompanies him to his destination – an abandoned hospital housing the afflicted as the government wrangles with the outbreak and hide the truth of what is really happening. Juliet Stevenson voices the installation, flitting between the doctor’s wife and storyteller. She ‘appears’ all around us thanks to Ben and Max Ringham’s extraordinary binaural sound design. More than traditional surround sound, binaural technology allows Stevenson’s voice to sit on your shoulder, whisper in your ear and move around a space that is nothing but your imagination. It is an experience so immersive you are simply fooled into believing you must be in her company.
As the title of the piece suggests the audience is subjected to long periods of blindness throughout. It is integral that a true blackout is achieved in the theatre – not even the illumination of a fire exit sign. For some it may be a little intimidating to not be able to see your hand in front of your face in a room full of strangers. The effect of sensory deprivation, however, heightens the others and the rare glimpses of illumination become extremely powerful and hugely symbolic in the moment as retinas search for food. Jessica Hung Han Yun’s lighting design is of such subtly it takes a period of prolonged darkness to appreciate the nuances she achieves. The denouement of the piece is too good to spoil in writing. It becomes a celebration of cultural reawakening, an encouragement to view things with fresh eyes and to appreciate the things we have and what was so nearly lost.
As the first audience allowed back inside The Lawrence Batley theatre’s walls in several months, Blindness resonates deeply with an audience yearning to once again be part of a shared live experience. Perhaps occasionally the narrative drive suffered from the visceral sensory immersion, but it didn’t seem to matter with such a profound and hopeful conclusion that the lights might be illuminated once again very soon.
Runs until 12th June 2021