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SCRUTINY | Simon Stephens’ Blindness Gets Us Back Into Theatre

By Paula Citron on August 7, 2021

Blindness at the Princess of Wales Theatre. Runs through August 29, 2021. (Photo: Mirvish Productions)

David Mirvish & Donmar Warehouse/Blindness by Simon Stephens, adapted from the novel by José Saramago, directed by Walter Meierjohann, Princess of Wales Theatre, Aug. 4 to 29. Tickets are available at mirvish.com.

Blindness by British playwright Simon Stephens is a triumph of technology. The ultra-sophisticated, binaural sound installation at the heart of the production, is another way of saying surround sound. In other words, the 3D stereo recording is designed to simulate a live performance, as if the action were not only being heard live, but was also moving around the listener, even to whispering in your ear.

The clever production was first presented in August/September 2020 by London’s Donmar Warehouse during a lull in England’s Covid lockdown. It’s an inside theatre piece. In the Toronto iteration, 50 patrons sit in single or double pods on the Princess of Wales stage wearing headsets to experience what is essentially a sound and light show.

Playwright Stephens took as his source material, the 1995 novel Ensaio sobre a Cegueira (Essay on Blindness) by Portuguese author José Saramago  (1922-2010), who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. And what a brilliant choice it was because the novel is about an epidemic of blindness that infects an entire population. What better theme to become a theatre presentation, given our current worldwide pandemic?

This production of Blindness is a class act. First, there is the producing company, Donmar Warehouse. For almost 30 years, the 251-seat, intimate venue, nestled in London’s Covent Garden, has presented world-class, adventurous theatre that has given the company its revered reputation.

And then there is the voice track of Blindness featuring Juliet Stevenson, one of the greatest British actors alive today. Stevenson performs all the characters, in particular, the Narrator and the Doctor’s Wife. The latter is the only person who doesn’t get infected by blindness, although she pretends she has the disease to be with her husband. When the government locks up the blind in an empty mental asylum in a vain hope of containing the epidemic, it is the Doctor’s Wife and her vivid descriptions who conveys, in graphic detail, the horrors of their journey.

Stephens certainly knows his way around words and plot. After all, he won both the Tony and Olivier Awards for Best New Play for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2012). As a hometown reference, Canadian Stage mounted Stephens’ Heisenberg (2015) in an intriguing production in 2017.

Nobel laureate Saramago wrote in allegories and parables, and Stephens’ script for Blindness captures this dynamic in the dystopian universe he presents. As we listen to the experiences of the Doctor’s Wife, at the top of our minds are the parallels to the trials and tribulations that we are currently experiencing during our own pandemic. The voice track is filled to the brim with tension and trauma, which the magnificent Stevenson brings to life in breathtaking fashion. One little cavil, however. I had trouble with the ending, which I felt came out of nowhere.

A large chunk of the kudos for Blindness must go to sound designers Ben and Max Ringham, who clearly worked closely with director Walter Meierjohann in how to convey the action around the stage in astonishing lifelike fashion. Whether it is Stevenson shouting in terror or imparting secrets, punctuated by judiciously placed sound effects, the stage action really is happening all around us.

There is a lighting component, courtesy designer Lizzie Clachan and lighting designer Jessica Hung Han Yun, which I found less than stellar. Bars of horizontal and vertical neons go up and down and receive colour play, but their manoeuvring added little to the brilliant soundscape. Admittedly, however, there are some novel surprise touches of light sources, but not enough of them.

All in all, Blindness gets us back into a theatre, albeit without live actors, but just walking into the familiar environs of the Princess of Wales was enough to give me a jolt of joy. May more in-person productions follow.


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Paula Citron
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