The first in-person, extended-run indoor theatrical presentation in New York since restrictions lifted has arrived, and it’s a doozy. British playwright Simon Stephens’s adaptation of Portuguese Nobel laureate José Saramago’s 1995 dystopian novel, Blindness, was long in the works prior to the coronavirus crisis, but its subject matter and staging are tailor-made for this precise moment in time.
The seventy-minute socially distanced sound and light installation debuted at the Donmar Warehouse last August and opened last night at the Daryl Roth Theatre in Union Square. Originally conceived as a fully staged production with a cast of a hundred by Tony winner Stephens and director Walter Meierjohann, it has been reimagined for the pandemic. A maximum of eighty-six masked people are allowed in the theater, seated in chairs in pods of two, either facing the same or opposite directions; each couple is at least six feet away from other pairs.
The set consists of dozens of horizontal and vertical fluorescent lights hanging from above, forming a kind of abstract traffic pattern, warmly changing colors from red, blue, and green to yellow and orange; as the audience enters, the sounds of cars can be heard. The otherwise empty, ominous set is by Lizzie Clachan, with lighting by Jessica Hung Han Yun. Every audience member receives a pair of headphones through which the foreboding tale unfolds. The text is performed by Olivier-winning English actress Juliet Stevenson (Truly, Madly, Deeply; Death and the Maiden), who starts out as the Storyteller before becoming the protagonist. “If you can see, look,” the Storyteller begins. “If you can look, observe.”
The dark parable immerses you in an epidemic in which a man driving down the street suddenly and inexplicably goes blind — everything turns white — and after he goes to an ophthalmologist, the doctor and several of his patients soon lose their sight as well. The contagion spreads, and only the doctor’s wife retains her vision; she takes over the narrative, which turns into an apocalyptic nightmare in which the nation’s leaders turn their back on its citizenry. “If there was a government, it was a government of the blind trying to rule the blind,” the doctor’s never-named wife says. “I didn’t know if there was going to be a future. We needed to decide how we were going to live.”
The audio was recorded using a binaural microphone, called Trevor, that is shaped like a human head, similar to the one Simon McBurney used in his 2016 Broadway show, The Encounter. Stevenson’s physical proximity to Trevor affects how we ultimately hear her words, giving it a three-dimensional quality. At times it seems that the doctor’s wife is far away, her voice muffled in the distance, while a minute later you can practically feel her hot breath on your neck as she whispers in your ear, as if she is standing right next to you. It can be unnerving, and it’s supposed to be, melding well with the story, which grows harsher and harsher. The genius sound design is by Ben and Max Ringham, who previously used binaural recordings and silent disco headphones for Ella Hickson’s spy thriller, Anna, at the National Theatre in May 2019. You might be sitting in a space with no stage, no furniture, no props, only chairs and lights, but Stephens’s writing is so descriptive, and Stevenson’s reading so clear and poetic, that you’ll think you are in the quarantine bunker where the blind characters are struggling to survive.
Although the theater does transform into total darkness for several scenes, random flashes of white lights in the second half are distracting, with no apparent connection to the story except to perhaps evoke an instant of white blindness. Depending on where you are sitting, you might be facing another audience member, which can be unsettling; usually at the theater, the only people in front of you who you might make eye contact with are the actors onstage. That said, it’s fabulously exciting to be in a theater with other people, experiencing something together. In addition, everyone gets a flashlight to turn on in case they require technical or personal assistance, although that can be disruptive, particularly when it’s pitch black and someone suddenly flicks the light on. There is no intermission, no bathroom breaks, no gathering in the lobby to chat; if you have to leave for some reason, there is no reentry. And speaking of distractions, the night I was there, I did not see anyone on their cell phone or hear any ringers go off. Sheer bliss.
Blindness, which was adapted into a 2007 play by Godlight Theatre Company, a 2008 film by Fernando Meirelles starring Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, and Danny Glover, and a 2011 opera by Anno Schreier and Kerstin Maria Pöhler — Saramago also wrote a sequel, Seeing, in 2004 — is not simply a technological marvel that explores the breakdown of society in a health crisis that is all too familiar today; it examines how we as a culture interpret how and what we see. It’s merely coincidental that we are watching a show about a pandemic, involving food insecurity, economic distress, governmental refusal to take action, and so much grief and loss, during a pandemic. Blindness delves into the interconnectedness of humanity amid greed, selfishness, and a metaphorical blindness that can lead to racism, hate, militarism, and othering. Stephens follows Saramago’s style of not using proper names for characters or locations; this could be happening to anyone, anywhere, at any time.
In writing the play, Stephens (Sea Wall, Heisenberg, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time), who is partially sighted, consulted with Hannah Thompson, a partially sighted professor of French and Critical Disability Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London, who explained ocularcentrism to him, the belief that sight is the most privileged of the five senses and how misunderstood having less vision is. (She prefers the term “vision gain” to “vision loss.”) Early on, the Storyteller says, “Who would have believed it? Seen at a glance, the man’s eyes seemed healthy. The iris looked bright, luminous. The sclera white, as compact as porcelain. The eyes wide open, the wrinkled skin of the face, the eyebrows suddenly screwed up.” As this immersive sound and light installation reminds us, taking life, and all its wonders, for granted comes at your own risk.