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Theatre after lockdown – ‘Blindness’ at the Donmar Warehouse

I was excited to get a ticket for one of the earliest theatre re-openings in the West End – described as a ‘socially distanced sound installation’ at the Donmar Warehouse. The production was billed as an adaptation by Simon Stephens of Nobel prize-winner José Saramago’s book ‘Blindness’, featuring the voice of Juliet Stevenson and directed by Walter Meierjohann. Despite the last-minute rescinding of lockdown easing for live performances, this one went ahead because it was completely pre-recorded. I wondered, when I read the reassuring email from the Donmar on Saturday, whether in fact I should not be quite so excited after all – a recording is hardly a return to the theatre is it?

Nevertheless, this is a theatre which had been on my list to visit before the virus landed and Simon Stephens is a playwright I follow and admire – plus I have truly missed my little trips up to town. Just walking around the streets of central London is one of my favourite ways of passing the time. So, it still seemed exciting.

The production runs four times a day to maximise attendance whilst maintaining social distance. I reckon there were about 30 people in the audience, each provided with a sanitised pair of headphones. I also decided that one of the people near me (still distanced of course) was said Simon Stephens, but it’s hard to tell when everyone has to wear a mask. The fan-girl in me likes to think it was him. He had a small notebook, as did several people there, and I suppose the others were probably journalists/critics, so I’m eagerly awaiting their reviews. How they managed to write notes during most of the 70 minutes I do not know: we were largely in darkness. 

The premise of this story is that the entire population goes suddenly blind, except one woman who narrates the story – via our headphones in this adaptation. Particularly relevant in our virus-ridden times, it charts the progress of the blindness epidemic and the rapid – and horrific – breakdown of society as a result.

I found it disconcerting at the beginning of the narration, as we heard of the first few characters becoming blind, that I could still see the rest of the audience. We were all seated in the performance space, facing in four different directions. I was on one edge facing inwards and could therefore see almost every other audience member without turning my head. This was distracting and a little uncomfortable. I had expected to be able to see nothing, or a projection of something blurry, or some unsettling lighting effects. Interesting to think afterwards that perhaps this showed one of the ways in which vision can be unhelpful.

As the fictional blindness progressed and the protagonists were confined to an asylum, darkness in the auditorium descended. It was complete darkness. Although anticipating my eyes would become accustomed to it, they did not, and I truly could see nothing. Occasional fizzing bursts of light, marking the move from one ‘scene’ to another, blasted from tubular lamps which had been lowered to seated head height engendering a feeling of entrapment. 

For me, this was the most affecting segment of the evening: intimate delivery both of horrific detail (the narrator describes the degenerating behaviour of inmates and guards) and more mundane rallying support (she speaks to her husband – ie. me in my headphones – and the other members of the first small group to be incarcerated, to support them). Combined with the visual deprivation and punctuating lighting effects, this was completely immersive, including the sounds of the asylum burning down. I heard Simon Stephens recently mention the significance of the English word ‘audience’, referring as it does to the sense of hearing – listening to a play. Aptly so here, I guess.

I couldn’t get up and run away now – how would I negotiate those lamps? In my left ear, Juliet Stevenson’s voice spoke directly to me. Completely unnerving. She couldn’t be there of course, but my eyes wouldn’t disprove it however wide I opened them above my increasingly uncomfortable face-mask. She was surely rifling through my handbag which I had obediently placed on the floor at my side. She asked me questions I almost answered aloud. I resisted the temptation to flail around with my hands – what if the lights came up suddenly? (So, perhaps not totally immersed then…but properly disturbing all the same.)

As the light partially returned, including a sequence when a dim moon appeared above us, the story rattled on as the group survived outside the asylum. Our sighted narrator was in turn deprived of her own vision whilst foraging in a shop with no lighting – an interesting twist.

The infection came to an end and sight was eventually restored to all who had survived. We were briefly subjected to light so bright it was uncomfortable, but then a more pleasant light shone from behind me. Noticing that everyone else was looking that way, I turned around to see the huge warehouse door to the street (first floor) was wide open, letting the remaining evening light through. Was this symbolic of bringing life or at least hope back to the theatre?

I am so glad I ventured out to experience this. The theatre staff were welcoming – seeming genuinely pleased that we were there – even whilst being quite strict in enforcing the one-way system, the seating access and the ‘don’t stand up and leave until personally invited to do so” at the end. There was no bar, plenty of strategically placed hand sanitiser, and definitely sufficient spacing between seats. All audience members wore masks once inside the building. I guess all this, and the relatively small number of people in the space often gazing across at each other in the moments of sufficient light, made for a slightly awkward atmosphere, but that in itself provokes thought.

I was properly moved by this evening. The production can take credit for most of that, but I also experienced a deep sadness that, despite participating in what I hope is a new theatrical dawn, this was such an isolated example. Personally isolated too because each audience member, or pair, had to leave the building separately. Remember the crush after a play as you walk down steep staircases and through too-small doors, spilling onto the pavement outside the theatre, listening to or joining conversations about how wonderful/ridiculous/funny/sad the production has just been? Little of that tonight. As a solo attendee, that changes the experience a great deal.

Worse still: one of my customary joys is my walk back to Waterloo. Emerging around 9.45pm in the heart of theatre land, this time there was no-one about. A few people occupied tables on the pavement outside those restaurants which were open, perhaps enjoying the government’s special August offer, it being a Monday. Mostly there were figures bedding down in theatre doorways, café-owners bagging up rubbish and a few stragglers taking advantage of the lack of vehicle traffic to zig-zag on foot in the roads. Whilst not a fan of crowds, I strangely felt less safe and more exposed. Even on the South Bank, there were few people and most of those had skateboards. At a little after 10pm, I was the only person walking up the road alongside the National Theatre.

This is not the London theatre land I remember.

I hope the old one comes back soon.

Follow one crying eye on