Stage Door Review
Friday, August 6, 2021
by Simon Stephens, directed by Walter Meierjohann
Donmar Warehouse, Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto
August 5-29 & September 24-October 24 2021
Doctor’s Wife: “If you can look, observe”
Mirvish Productions is currently hosting one of the most unique and powerful productions it has ever presented. This is the “socially distanced sound installation” Blindness that premiered at London’s Donmar Warehouse on August 1, 2020. The show is adapted from the 1995 novel of the same name (Ensaio sobre a cegueira in the original) by the Portuguese Nobel Prize laureate José Saramago. The term “sound installation” really does not do the work justice because sound installations tend not not to have a narrative, and Blindness has a narrative that grips you from its first words and never lets you go. Simon Stephens who adapted The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2012) also adapted Blindness and the storytelling is as strong here as in the earlier work.
The set-up for Blindness involves seating 50 audience members on the stage of the Princess of Wales Theatre in ones and twos on chairs that have been physically distanced. Masks are still required through the 75-minute performance. Couples are seated in two adjacent chairs that face opposite directions. This reinforces the theme of personal isolation but is also necessary for the success of some of the eeriest sound effects. Above the seating area is an LED tube sculpture by lighting designer Jessica Hung Han Yun mingling vertical and horizontal elements. The tubes can change from white through a whole range of colours.
Each seat is equipped with headphones through which we hear the pre-recorded voice of actor Juliet Stevenson and innumerable subtle to startling sound effects. A signal is given to don the headphones and adjust the volume and it is pointed out that there is a flashlight at each seat. This is because large portions of the work take place in total darkness, and anyone who needs to leave thus has a flashlight to hand.
While the lights are still on the beautifully modulated voice of Stevenson describes to us in a matter-of-fact manner the day when everything changed. The scene is an intersection. The lights above us as in the story change from red to green, but one car does not move. Its driver has suddenly, inexplicably gone blind. Unlike ordinary severe blindness, the patient doe not see black but bright white.
The driver is taken to an ophthalmologist who determines that there are no lesions whatsoever in the patient’s eyes that could explain his loss of sight. As the ophthalmologist looks through reference books for any precedent for his patient’s condition, he realizes to his horror that he, too, his going blind. As we discover so, too, do all the people who were in his waiting room.
The terror grows that unlike any form of human blindness, this new form is communicable and does not even require physical contact to be passed on.
At this point you realize that if you were attending Blindness as a respite from the all-pervasive news of Covid-19, this play is not it. Since, however, Saramago wrote his novel in 1995, one can understand how his fable of a plague overtaking helpless humanity would have profound resonance today. Indeed, that plague as Saramago depicts it and the response it provokes are far worse than anything Covid-hit countries have suffered so far. During the performance, we pray to stay as rational in future as we can.
After a major and totally disconcerting shift in the lighting, Stevenson no longer plays the objective narrator but rather the Doctor’s Wife, the wife of the ophthamologist, who for unknown reasons has not gone blind. In order not to stand out, the Doctor’s Wife pretends to be blind. At the same time, she uses her sight to help all the blind she comes across, like those in her husband’s waiting room. Ironically, although perhaps symbolically, the military quartantines her group of blind people in a disused insane asylum.
The total darkness in the asylum section matches the total blindness the people the Doctor’s Wife cares for. Periodically, as if from a power surge, the horizontal LED tubes that have lowered to eye level zap on briefly leaving the after-impression on your retina. The effect only underscores the mystery of the organs of sight we so depend on.
The biggest battles she has to fight are over food, with those in other wards who have stolen all that was meant to be shared. Stevenson’s voice magnificently conveys the increasing strain she is under, the rage she feels towards those who are so selfish in a time of general human need and the infinite pity she feels for all those under her care who are suffering. Stevenson’s performance alone is an outstanding achievement.
Enhancing her performance is the unbelievably realistic sound design of Ben and Max Ringham. In the scenes in the asylum you hear the Doctor’s Wife seemingly walk right in front of you so realistically that you move your feet out of the way to let her pass. The Ringhams have so perfectly calibrated the round that judging from the Doctor’s Wife’s voice and various sound effects, the room you feel you’re in matches exactly the size of the stage where you are sitting. The uncanniest effects of all are the numerous times when the Wife seems to whisper directly into your ear confiding her growing fears about the increasingly dangerous situation.
This long central period in the asylum takes place in total darkness so that it is easy to see in the mind’s eye the matches the Wife seems to light just inches from your ear. Blindness is a totally immersive experience like no other.
During the course of the show one becomes increasingly convinced that director Walter Meierjohann and his brilliant team have created a new genre of theatre. Audio drama one can listen to anywhere and is not dependent on being experienced in a specific space. Sound installations, as mentioned above, usually are not narratives and certainly do not have so detailed a story as does Blindness. In movies sight is foremost and sound is secondary. In Blindness, it is the reverse and because of that it is immensely exciting to experience.
We, being presently emmeshed in a pandemic, have no firm perspective with which to regard it. Saramago’s fable is complete and provides an analogue to our own situation that helps provide such perspective. As a fable, however, it carries its own questions. What is this blindness that suddenly pervades an entire nation? World history is not short of examples of entire nations that have been overcome with a madness blind to reality.
One cause of sudden blindness in real people is hysterical blindness, a conversion disorder in which trauma or distress is converted to a physical symptom of blindness is but one possibility. We know there is such a phenomenon as mass hysteria, why not metaphorically reconceive it as mass blindness. Why is the Doctor’s Wife immune from the plague? Could it be that her inherent rationality has saved her? In Albert Camus’s 1947 novel The Plague, the doctor solves his question of what point there is to living by finding it in living for others. Could it be that Saramago is also making the same point?
This dramatic and technologically immersive experience will not leave you. After the performance ends its most profound effect is that you will feel that you can see the world more clearly. As the Doctor’s Wife implores us, “If you can see, look. If you can look, observe”.
Photo: Scene from Blindness during the performance, © 2021 Mirvish Productions; pre-show scene from Blindness at the Princess of Wales Theatre, © 2021 Joe Szekeres.
For tickets visit www.mirvish.com.