Review: Blindness (Donmar Warehouse)

Simon Stephens adapts José Saramago’s novel as part of a covid-safe installation at the venue

© Helen Maybanks

In a silent and shuttered West End, with theatres dark and the cafes, bars and businesses that relied on eager theatre-goers for custom still and empty, the fact that the Donmar Warehouse has reopened for business feels like a good deed in a dirty world. The fact that it has come back to life with a piece that is actually creative, inventive and engrossing feels almost too much to be grateful for.

Faced with the government's decision that even socially-distanced live indoor performance has to be halted, to make theatres Covid-safe, the Donmar has cleverly come up with a sound installation: there is an audience, but no actors. Everyone has to wear a mask. The painstakingly organised and hard-working theatre staff usher you separately to your seats. But in the hands of the brilliant sound designers Ben and Max Ringham, designer Lizzie Clachan and lighting designer Jessica Hung Han Yun, it feels vividly theatrical.

It takes theatre back to its roots – a group of people gathered together to listen to a story – and then adds contemporary technological wizardry. The story told is an apposite one: Simon Stephens has adapted José Saramago's novel about what happens when everyone in the world, except for one woman, suddenly goes blind.

This is, according to the digital programme notes, a book that he and director Walter Meierjohann have wanted to stage for years; one version had a cast of 100. This incarnation gathers an audience of around 50 into a stripped back Donmar, setting pairs of socially-distanced chairs into the open space, under bolts of fluorescent light. These change from red to amber to green as blindness descends on its first victim, sitting in his car at a traffic lights, suddenly unable to see, and so to move.

Juliet Stevenson, queen of audio-books, is our narrator and guide through this tale. Initially, her narration is cool, and measured, a third person description of the descent of a sudden, highly contagious epidemic. But as disaster tips into dystopia, and the blind people are herded into prison camps where they are abandoned to be brutalised by soldiers and by a gang of thugs, she takes on the first-person persona of the sighted wife of a blinded ophthalmologist.

As the story moves from "something terrible is happening out there" to "It's horrible here", she begins to whisper into our ears, trying to protect us, trying to make some kind of sense of something that has stripped away the rules of humanity. Much of this section occurs in blackout, the white lights having descended like the blindness itself , with the Ringhams' extraordinary binaural soundscape placing us in the prison camp, Stevenson's voice sounding as if she was sitting beside us or holding our hand. It's a magnificent piece of narration, gripping and believable.

Stephens has radically altered the emphasis of the novel; he makes the loss of sight a revelation as well as a plague, and the descent into a post-apocalyptic hell swift and brutal, but its aftermath curtailed. There are hints of our current situation: there's "a curve of resolution" to prevent spread, which recalls Boris Johnson's desire to squish the sombrero; there is a scientific adviser who goes blind in the course of a press conference; there's an emphasis on "individual responsibility". But the story aspires to the universal.

The adaptation cannot entirely escape the flaws of the novel; having had one brilliant idea Saramago it seems to me that he struggles to make enough of it. What is utterly transfixing, however, is the way the installation forces you to listen and be utterly absorbed in the telling. It's not just the sound that is so immersive, but the subtle hints contained in the lighting – in the way beams flicker underneath individual chairs, or gleam in hidden corners. Finally, suddenly, amazingly, daylight enters the darkness, which has become metaphorical as much as actual. It is wonderful.

And it was wonderful too, simply to be there. To be thinking about something in a cultural setting, to be thinking about the same thing as others in the room. One of the stars is for joy at this small flicker of hope in the midst of so much theatrical darkness. The sooner other theatres can be supported in order to make work, the sooner real light will be let in to our current crisis.