by Lynn on August 6, 2021

in The Passionate Playgoer

audience and lighting (Photo: Mirvish Productions)

Live, on the stage of the Princess of Wales Theatre until August 29, 2021.

A socially distanced sound (and light) installation.

Based on the novel by José Saramago

Adapted by Simon Stephens

Directed by Walter Meierjohann

Sound designers, Ben and Max Ringham

Designed by Lizzie Clachan

Lighting designed by Jessica Hung Han Yun

With the voice of Juliet Stevenson

And Angus Wright.

Thrilling. Thrilling. Ditto.

The Story. In an unnamed city, citizens suddenly find themselves blind. They don’t ‘see’ black. They see ‘blinding’ white.’ There is no cause. No reason. It’s just sudden. A person is driving his car and suddenly loses his sight right there in the car. An eye doctor checks the eyes of patients who manage to come and see him and he can find nothing wrong. And while he is doing research at home on possible causes, he too goes blind. The only one who can see is his wife.

The government rounds up the people for their ‘safety’ and takes them to what the wife realizes is an abandoned mental institution. An announcement on a public address system notes seven important points, including that food will be dropped off three times a day; they will receive medical supplies etc. The wife realizes that they are not being protected, they are really prisoners. How they cope, deal with the danger of it all and come through it is the harrowing tale of surviving a plague. Sound familiar?

The Production. This is billed as “A socially distanced sound installation.” I have added the words, “and light” because the light and lack thereof are also crucial to submerging the audience in the world of the play. Writer Simon Stephens has condensed José Saramago’s book but has not diminished it in any way. The language and story are vivid and mesmerizing.

We sit in a large room with rows of distanced seats configured for one and two (bravo to Lizzie Clachan for the interesting design). Each seat has a pair of disinfected ear phones. To ensure that we put them on properly a voice (Angus Wright?) first says, “Left ear,” and we hear it in the left ear of the headphones,  then “Right ear” and the same with the right ear of the headphones.  A formation of long tube light bulbs looks like they crisscross overhead (Jessica Hung Han Yun deserves kudos for the lighting). Over the course of the narration/story the lights will change colour, lower and will go off throwing the room in pitch darkness.  All four walls of the space are black except for one wall which has the following printed in white paint: “If you can see, look. If you can look, observe.” It’s a wonderful metaphor for this show and life.

The lines are spoken by Juliet Stevenson, the celebrated British actress who plays the narrator, the Doctor’s wife and others over the course of the 75-minute show. The voice is measured, controlled and beautifully paced. The sound of that celebrated voice is remarkable. The inflection and diction are tempered, quiet and compelling as we listen through our ear phones.

And then something astonishing happens. The sound design of Ben and Max Ringham unsettles us, disorients us even though we know where we are. Somehow Juliet Stevenson, as the Doctor’s wife, is in the room with us, very close to our left ear, whispering as if to her Doctor husband of what she is perceiving is happening. So close is that sound in our ear we don’t move for fear of twitching and perhaps hitting her face or nose. Sometimes her voice is in front very close and I move my feet and backpack so as not to trip her (as apparently, she did the same thing—without the backpack—when she saw an early performance at the Donmar Warehouse where the show was first done last year).  At other times the sound is behind the ear no matter if one turns one’s head a bit, the sound is always a bit behind the ear. At times she runs across the room and we hear her footsteps moving around us and off.

Director Walter Meierjohann and his wonderful sound designers are so meticulous in their detail it leaves one breathless. In one scene Stevenson plays the Doctor doing an eye examination on a person afflicted with this sudden blindness. We get the sense the doctor is so close we can hear his shallow breathing very close to the patient. I’ve heard that careful breathing from my own eye doctor. We don’t hear that breathing at any other time, except for the breathlessness when the Doctor’s wife is anxious and winded from running. That attention to detail is exquisite.

When the group of people are herded into the abandoned mental institution there is an announcement from an authoritative voice (Angus Wright) from a public address system that is deliberately muddy. We know it’s important by the commanding tone, we get a hint of what he is saying but we can’t make out clearly what it is. What better way to confound, confuse and agitate the people being held captive than to broadcast an announcement they can’t hear properly. Brilliant.

There are moments in this production that are exquisite and moving. At one point the Doctor’s wife makes a discovery when looking for food for the people she is protecting. The sound of Stevenson’s voice conveys such bliss it’s intoxicating. At another point the lights slowly go up in the room and I see where I really am and find the moment so emotional I wept hard and quietly behind my mask.     

Comment. Every precaution is taken for the audience’s safety and health. There is social distancing when we enter the theatre lobby. We stand on a circle on the floor that notes our exact seat location in the theatre. Each circle is ‘distanced’ from its neighbour. We are taken individually into the space where the seats are grouped in singles and doubles facing each other rather being side by side. It’s joyful to see colleagues and familiar theater goers after not seeing anyone at a theatre for 16 months. I note that Irene Sankoff and David Hein (who wrote Come From Away) are there and are seated across from me. “Why aren’t you at home, writing?” I ask (a private joke. We both laugh).   

Blindness is thrilling, not just because we so missed the experience of live theatre for 16 months. Blindness is thrilling because it is the culmination of gifted theatre makers meticulously creating an experience that puts the audience in the centre of the story and that world through words, light and sound. It’s simply thrilling. I can’t think of a better experience to bring us back to the theater and its incredible possibilities for story-telling, engagement and community.  

The Donmar Warehouse production.

Plays until August 29, 2021.

Running Time: 75 minutes, no intermission.

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1 Harold Povilaitis August 27, 2021 at 10:50 pm

Thank you, Lynn, for such an insightful and informative review of this stirring and fascinating production … much appreciated !