Mark Ludmon reviews Simon Stephens’ adaptation of Jose Saramago’s Blindness as a sound installation by Ben and Max Ringham at London’s Donmar Warehouse.
Donmar Warehouse, London
José Saramago’s apocalyptic novel about an epidemic of blindness is a chillingly appropriate choice for the Donmar Warehouse while live theatre is curbed by a global pandemic. This gripping 1995 masterpiece charts the rapid disintegration of society and its codes of behaviour, exposing the fragile, invisible line between civilisation and chaos. Under Covid-19, British society remains largely intact, despite the devastation to theatre and the performing arts, but the Donmar’s adaptation of Blindness is testament to the enduring need for people to gather together to listen to stories.
While technicians are on hand behind the scenes, Blindness is not strictly live performance. Described as a “sound installation”, it has been created by Stephens (who started work on it before Covid-19 arrived) with director Walter Meierjohann and leading sound designers Ben and Max Ringham. Social distancing rules allow no more than 40 people across the stalls and circle so audience members are scattered throughout, sitting alone or in pairs, shut off from each other by headphones. A web of neon-style tubes shifts from red to blue to green to white as part of the lighting design by Jessica Hung Han Yun and overall design by Lizzie Clachan.
Through the headphones, Stevenson’s recorded voice narrates the opening section of the story, from the moment that the first man in an unnamed country finds his sight replaced by a milky sea of white. Just when you start to wonder why you travelled into town and spent money on a ticket just to hear Stevenson read a book on Audible, you are plunged into darkness and the magic of the binaural sound design takes over. She takes on the role of a woman who, inexplicably, still has her sight but keeps it secret to be by her blind husband’s side. In the pitch dark, you are transported to the streets of the devastated city and the hospital where victims of the virus are quarantined. Stevenson seems to whisper in your ear, feeling so close that you expect to feel the warmth of her breath on your cheek – which is especially unsettling in a theatre where two-metre social distancing is being strictly observed. You find yourself turning your head to seek her out in the darkness, or moving your feet so not to trip her up.
Saramago’s vision of the fragility of social order is bleak, and this 74-minute adaptation can capture only fragments of the brutal, filth-soaked world that the Portuguese writer conjures up in his novel. But the show also captures the sublime moments of hope in the midst of the horror, the joy in the small details of life that remind us of our humanity. Like the book, it reinforces how our society privileges people with sight, where the one non-blind person becomes the least helpless despite being “nobody special”, but this adaptation highlights and champions how sound by itself can tell vivid stories and create a different way of experiencing the world.
Through its illusion of closeness, this sound-based adaptation of Blindness is an antidote to the reality of visiting the Donmar. I was one of just 10 up in the circle, separated from each other by several empty seats, looking down to the main floor where people were evenly spread out on isolated islands of double seats. After being greeted outside by front-of-house staff in face shields, you are led slowly, two metres apart, through the theatre to your seats, encouraged to make regular use of the hand sanitiser (which curiously has the aroma of tequila). It is no substitute for live theatre but it is still a wonderful and welcome way to experience vivid storytelling inside a theatre building.
Running to 22 August 2020