With (masked) audience members scattered in socially distanced, arranged-just-so pairs of seats across the otherwise empty floor of the Daryl Roth Theatre, Saramago’s thriller, adapted for this Donmar Warehouse production by Tony Award-winning playwright Simon Stephens (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) and directed by Walter Meierjohann, slides up beside you like a whisper and, when necessary, a scream.
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The hyper-realistic story-soundscape is relayed through what must be the most effective noise-canceling headphones this side of NASA. The play is not so much narrated as performed by Olivier Award winning actress Juliet Stevenson, who guides the listening audience – a significant portion of the production unfolds in utter darkness – through Saramago’s nightmare imaginings of what would happen should humanity be struck by a sudden epidemic of blindness.
The plot will be familiar to anyone who read the 1995 novel or saw Fernando Meirelles’ 2008 movie version starring Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo. The epidemic is recounted at first on a micro level – we’re all but in the car with the first man struck by the “white blindness” during a traffic jam (the new sickness does not render everything dark, but snowy white).
From there, Stevenson’s narrator daisy-chains to the next victim, and the next and the next, until we’re soon dragged mentally into the filthy, violent locked-down nameless compound where the sick are abandoned by their panicked and failing government. It’s all a bit 1984 with a touch of Lord of the Flies, a smattering of Sophie’s Choice, a wallop of The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street and a shiver of last spring’s headlines.
The theater’s darkness is repeatedly broken by the flashes and slow dimmings of a spare, gorgeous light installation – think fluorescent tubes arranged in a careful assembly of horizontal and vertical pick-up-sticks. The tubes rise and fall and rise again from the ceiling, the various configurations sometimes glowing a soothing blue, burning red or flashing with the bright white of an emergency alarm.
As effective (and really and truly mesmerizing) as Jessica Hung Han Yun’s lighting design is, the production would fall flat without Ben and Max Ringham’s multi-directional sound design that does so much of the heavy lifting to place the audience smack dab in the middle of the terror. Footsteps advance and retreat, alarms shriek and Stevenson’s voice seems to move from a shout in the far corners to a whisper just over your shoulder. More than once I removed the headphones just to see if the sound was being augmented by an external system or even by live human beings. It wasn’t.
Meierjohann’s staging – the concept, the tech stuff, the performance – lends a vividness to Saramago’s fabulism that the 2008 film, with all its graphic and naturalist detail, lacked. Onscreen, the broad strokes of allegory reduced so many of the imprisoned characters to mouthpieces, each an artificial representation of a human attribute – loyalty here, sadism there, compassion way over yonder.
In this production, we receive everything through the voice of the one character who remains sighted, a storyteller gathering us round a virtual campfire to chill us with the unseen horrors breathing down our necks.