After four months in darkness, the Donmar Warehouse has reopened its doors with Simon Stephens’s blazing adaptation of José Saramago’s sinister novel Blindness. This sound and light piece, with a brilliant narration by Juliet Stevenson, fed to the audience through headphones, is a deliciously unnerving experience.
The story is hardly an escape from the present moment: an infectious and instantaneous blindness spreads across the globe as an overnight pandemic, bringing the world to a fearful halt. Stephens’s precisely written adaptation pinpoints the current state of our nerves: when the infected are left to fend for themselves by a cruel, useless government, the eeriness becomes actually scary. Stevenson is the only person who can still see, and carries the weight of responsibility for bearing witness to the atrocities around her. As the story becomes one of filth and rot and monsters, her crisp narration fills with savage rage.
The Donmar’s regular seating has been taken out and replaced with wooden chairs scattered about in suitably distanced pairs. The audience, wearing face masks, sit under glowing bars of criss-crossing, colour-changing light, beautifully designed by Jessica Hung Han Yan, that illustrate the story powerfully. The rumbling sound design by Ben and Max Ringham – the brothers behind last year’s creepy Berberian Sound Studio – creates a constant, aching tension.
At certain points, the room is plunged into a thick, heavy blackness. The piece is claustrophobic by nature, but when wearing the required mask on a swelteringly hot day, breathing suddenly feels much harder. At these points, the lack of sight is disorienting and the Ringhams’ binaural sound design properly takes effect as the violence of the piece crawls beneath your skin. It feels as if Stevenson is whispering right into your ear, stroking your arm, holding that dripping knife.
For anyone finding conversations about the coronavirus pandemic extremely anxiety-inducing, this is not a show to distract you. But Blindness is an exquisitely told story of resilience, violence, and hope. Stevenson’s narration is so vivid, and the tech design so atmospheric, that you’d almost swear you could see each scene playing out in front of you.