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’As vivid as anything you saw on stage 5 months ago’: BLINDNESS – Donmar Warehouse

Donmar Warehouse, London – until 22 August 2020

It has been almost five months since theatres closed their doors and many of us will remember distinctly the last show we saw live (the wonderful Peace in Our Time at the Union Theatre). Our first post-lockdown experience will be just as memorable and even a tiny bit emotional, returning to the spaces where we have spent  so many happy and fulfilling hours absorbing lives, stories and experiences that take us beyond our own singular view of the world. And while the mechanics of live indoor performances are still being considered or on indefinite hiatus, first out of the blocks with a fascinating audio experience is the Donmar Warehouse and it is so good to be back.

Radio dramas and auditory experiences have become increasingly popular, the rise in audio books, podcasts and staged readings require audiences to use their imagination to envisage scenes and characters. Recently, the Almeida premiered a new Climate Change-focused radio play by Ben Weatherill at its digital Shifting Tides festival while Bertie Carvel’s Lockdown Theatre Festival on Radio 3 and 4 repurposed new plays suddenly truncated by theatre closures. This feels like a new avenue for drama.

But when Shakespeare asked the audience to pretend the ‘vasty fields of France’ were contained within the ‘wooden O’ of his performance space during the prologue to Henry V there was a tacit acknowledgement that the cast and crew of the theatre can only create so much illusion, everything else rests in the minds of the viewer. And sound design has had an increasingly sophisticated role to play in prompting that imagination in recent years, not only providing a cinematic emotional barometer but also helping to reposition the visual experience by altering what the audience can hear.

One of the most interesting examples of this was Ella Hickson’s Anna at the National Theatre in 2019, a fascinating 60-minute play set during the cold war in which the headphone-wearing audience listened-in to the sounds of a Russian flat in the 1960s. Visually, it was just a living room filled with party guests but we heard private exchanges, activities and frustrations occurring behind the scenes, essentially spying on Anna’s flat which, unbeknownst to her guests, made the audience intimately aware of every offstage rustle of fabric or jagged breath that the eye was unable to see. The masterminds behind this intricate work were Ben and Max Ringham, sound-scaping experts whose design has formed the backdrop to more shows than you may realise and whose work is now firmly in the spotlight.

Blindness is their masterpiece, a 70-minute performance that layers story, sound effects, music and lighting design to immerse the audience in a pandemic experience. Adapted from Jose Saramago’s novel by Simon Stephens, the intimacy of this work is created by the Ringhams who transport you to the middle of a global crisis while using a range of audio techniques, pitches and effects to play with your emotional experience. There are no actors in the room with you but the Donmar’s extraordinary show is as vivid as anything you saw on stage five months ago.

In essence, the show explores the apocalyptic nature of pandemic literature and the dystopian tropes we have come to expect from these stories. The shift from ordinary life to societal breakdown is a recognisable trajectory passing through stages of confusion, denial, panic and the development of a semi-feral state of existence. And whether the source material is a J.G. Ballard novel such as High Rise or H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, the fragility of human societies and how rapidly the veneer of civilisation is defeated by baser impulses to eat, drink and reproduce is a key theme. Within these ideas, writers explore concepts of leadership, brutality, shame and factionalism as tribes form and compete in a survival of the fittest scenario that tries to determine who lives and dies in the new world.

Using Saramago’s novel as a basis, Stephens’s play charts a similar path as the infectious removal of sight spreads without reason from a single victim to the entire population. The descriptions of people’s last moments of vision are eclectic and vivid, from car thieves to lovers to doctors as the white blindness afflicts indiscriminately with only one character inexplicably unaffected and able to coordinate the ensuing battle for survival.  Naturally, daily life disintegrates as Stephens envisages barricaded settlements, a hand-to-mouth existence and brutal encounters with rival clans all of which play out in your mind as you listen to the waves of carnage unfold and recede in fearful isolation.

Blindness is distinguished by having a single narrator and lead character that guides the audience through this journey. Recounted by the Doctor’s Wife, there are reflective passages in which events are described in retrospect from an unspecified future time using an ultimate end point  to give context and drive to the story, while much of the central section is re-enacted, unfolding in real time segments with you acting as a silent character. It is extremely effective, just long enough at 70-minutes not to overuse the device while creating both perspective and a chilling intimacy as you imagine events unfolding around you.

The genius is how sound is then used to fool your brain into believing locational information and using the intimacy of audio techniques to generate very specific emotional responses as the story unfolds. Recorded using a  binaural microphone to create a three-dimensional effect, this changes the perspective from which the sound is heard as footsteps recede in a particular direction or the panicked voice of the Doctor’s Wife comes from different angles. Sitting in the dark, it seems almost that she is standing behind you or, as the sounds moves expertly from one side of your headphones to the other, the skilled combination of voice, movement and the rustle of clothing suggest she is circling you. When she crouches low to whisper quietly and intensely in your ear, it becomes an experience so intimate and invasive that you may feel chills down your back as though she really were at your shoulder.

Supporting sounds begin quietly, a hint of traffic noise and the low thrum of a city, the intense and relentless pulse-like beat that underscores so much drama these days or the occasional specific sound effect that changes location from individual houses to doctor’s surgeries and the echoed abandonment of the buildings of the future. But the way in which the pattern of sound builds during the piece is almost symphonic, crescendos rise and fall in line with the drama, layering intricate sequences of noise that transport the listener entirely into the action, particularly the growing frenzy of the hospital eventually filled with infected patients, reverberating and dangerous, the sounds of metal beds, anguish, fire and confrontation clashing purposefully as tensions rise and the once supportive community fractures irreparably.

And while this show is understandable all about sound, the key to unlocking this drama and your imagination comes from the way presence and absence of your own sight is used very specifically in the production to create the experience of the character you become. Jessica Hung Han Yun’s lighting design is both a fun extra as the ushers guide you to a colourfully illuminate seat, and an integral element of the overall immersive quality of the experience. Over your head, the air is dressed with strip lights positioned in horizontal and vertical shapes that pulse with coloured light at crucial points in the show indicating changes of tone, beat and character experience while offering momentary crackles of hope – when these descend to almost eye-level the tenor of the piece changes completely.

This is a show primarily, then, about absolute darkness into which the audience is plunged for much of the show. At first it is unnerving, a complete blackout in which you can only hear events seemingly unfolding around you and, much like the afflicted characters, your brain cannot draw comfort from fellow audience members to remind your where you are. It is overwhelming initially and, with the stifling quality of face masks on a very hot day, creates a brief sensation of panic until you (fairly quickly) adjust to the prolonged darkness and momentary flickers of sight within the remaining portion of the show.

This combination of sound and absence of light is well achieved in a fascinating experiment that increasingly cheats your brain into reacting to the event as though you were a silent participant in the unfolding chaos. All of this is pinned convincingly together by Stephens’s adaptation that distills the wider cast and scope of Saramago’s novel into essentially a one-woman show through whose eyes – as the only person with sight – the audience hears the story evolve. Stephens’s achievement is not to dramatise every moment but to build a picture of infection and societal decline through fragments of narrative that develop chronologically. As tensions rise, he utilises quick cuts between increasingly dangerous scenarios and moments of temporary lull to reinforce the ongoing strain as future attacks are anticipated. Smartly, it offers the audience a flavour of the boiling discontent, turf wars and horrifying violence resulting from the renunciation of humanity without being overly prescriptive, a prompt to your imagination that fills in the rest for itself.

Juliet Stevenson as narrator and lead character helps to pin the combined influences of story and design together, giving both a perspective of calm reflection told from a future point of safety while slowly developing the anxiety of disintegration as months or perhaps years elapse. The orderly sensibility of the Doctor’s Wife turns gradually to something stronger as authority develops not just through having sight but a clear sense of purpose or duty to help the little band of the afflicted that she collects. When more desperate times emerge later in the story, Stevenson’s character graduates to darker territory, finding reserves of menace and a preparedness to do whatever it takes as protector and captain. And while rage, frustration and violence erupt from her prolonged state of weary management, she remains kind and attentive to you as her husband – and interesting to see a rounded female lead in the mold of other sci-fi heroines with agency and narrative force.

This is a great first step back to full performance for the Donmar Warehouse and the various safety measures are managed with extreme care by the front of house staff, allowing 40-50 people to experience the performance four times a day. Whether we are still at the beginning, middle or end of our own pandemic remains to be seen but there is hope both in Stephens’s play and in just being able to open this theatre at all. And it is so wonderful to be back. Lizzie Clachan may have slightly reconfigured this beloved room where so many wonderful stories have been told in recent years – Teenage Dick, Far Away, Measure for Measure, Coriolanus, Sweat and Les Liaisons Dangereuses among them – but the unusual and evocative Blindness is a memorable first post-lockdown theatre experience and will help the Donmar find its way back to the light.

Blindness is at the Donmar Warehouse until 22 August with tickets from £17.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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