Heading back down to the Entertainment District this week was surreal. What’s that saying? You never truly know what you’ve missed until it’s gone? I missed theatre more than I realized. I had returned to the Princess of Wales Theatre for the first time since lockdown for the opening of Donmar Warehouse production of Blindness — an adaptation of the Nobel laureate José Saramago’s 1995 dystopian novel of the same name. Presented as a sound installation, this production invites the audience ON the stage for an unforgettable performance. But there are no live actors and it’s presented mostly in the dark.
The story is set in an unnamed city where citizens suddenly become blind from a mysterious infection. Without warning or any sort of logical reason they lose their sight and it alarmingly spreads quickly causing mass panic. The government tries to quarantine all those infected by herding them to a remote place but fails to protect those in need. As more people become infected, more are crammed into the space with very little support. The place quickly becomes more of a concentration camp rather than a hospital. One patient pretends to be blind so she could be with her infected husband who is an ophthalmologist. For some unknown reason she’s immune to the strange virus. What she sees and observes is spine chilling…and I can still sense her breathing down my neck.
Award-winning playwright Simon Stephens (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, for which he won both the Tony and Olivier awards for best play) has adapted the story into a sound installation directed by Walter Meierjohann with sound design by Ben and Max Ringham. The immersive sound is designed to be binaural – that is, making the work sound as if it were physically happening around you, putting you in the centre of the action as you become fully immersed through sound.
If you’re thinking that this is just a listening performance you’ll be quite surprised at how emotionally invested you become. This almost too close for comfort storyline is voiced of award winning British actor Juliet Stevenson who plays both storyteller and doctor’s wife. The audience becomes part of the story. The lights flicker. They go white and then they plunge into the pitch black darkness. I am all of the sudden one of the infected.
Many times it felt as though she standing right next to me and other times she sounds as though she’s racing to the opposite end of the stage where you can hear echos in the chambers of the ghostly space. The fear in her voice is remarkable crisp. Several times her voice made the hair on my arms stand. Several times I felt compelled to lift off one side of my headphones just to be sure she wasn’t actually right next to me especially when the space was pitch black. The entire experience is quite something. The sense of isolation and being forgotten about turns into survival mode — the good, bad and the ugly are revealed.
Now that our city is easing up on restrictions, Mirvish appears to be opening up safely and responsibly starting with this production. They have been working with the TELUS Medical Advisory Council (MAC), a team of Canadian medical experts who have been advising several large organizations in their efforts to prepare an informed, science-based, and compassionate pandemic response.
Blindness has reminded me of what I love about theatre in the first place…to not only see, but also to feel. What a memorable experience to help ease back into the theatre…and the subject matter, is well, very timely.
What else you might want to know….
There are 50 available seats per performance for this spectacular immersive sound installation experience. If tickets were purchased online, the QR code is scanned at the entrance as it was in the past. Masks are worn at all times by everyone indoors including production crew, theatre staff, and patrons. Once checked in, each person is requested to wait at their designated waiting spot until an usher accompanies you to your seat. Strongly advise a visit to the washroom prior to the show as this 75 minute production has no intermission. No concession stands are open.
Entering through the stage doors, seats are assigned in pods of one or two people and socially distanced on the stage of the Princess of Wales Theatre. Audience members are provided with a sanitized pair of headphones and a flashlight (in case of emergency), both located on the seat. Everything is immediately sanitized once the show is done. Programs are offered via QR code that can be downloaded ahead of time. Strictly no phones allowed or anything that would light up in the dark for that matter. Be sure to put your smart watches away.
For tickets and more information about Blindness, visit www.mirvish.com