José Saramago’s Blindness Takes on Heightened Meaning in Our Pandemic Age

The phantoms of 2020 resurface with shivery impact throughout.

Blindness
Photo: Helen Maybanks

One of the first indoor performances in New York City since March 2020, Blindness may not be quite the jubilant return to the theater that audiences have fantasized about. After all, the story takes place during an epidemic that spins wildly, rapidly out of control until the government collapses, the stricken crawl on all fours through the streets seeking scraps of food, and dogs devour rotting human corpses.

This production, billed as a “sound installation” and originating last summer at London’s Donmar Warehouse, is far from the first adaptation of José Saramago’s disturbing 1995 novel of the same title. There have been multiple stage versions, a film, and even a German-language opera. But, unlike those previous incarnations, the deliberate aim of this harrowing, immersive audio book of a retelling by playwright Simon Stephens (with direction by Walter Meierjohann) seems to be to conjure up the terrors of our own fractured, mid-pandemic world. Each seat comes with a pair of headphones through which the voice of Juliet Stevenson accompanies a jolting soundscape of sirens, shrieks, and gunfire.

The phantoms of 2020 resurface with shivery impact throughout: Even if the contagion depicted here is blindness itself, the symptom of a painless sickness that turns each infected person’s vision to a “milky sea” of white, it’s hard not to see ourselves in the queasy contours of initial panic, prolonged quarantine, and a society scrabbling to rebuild itself after chaos. Blindness lingers in sensory horror—flaming strobe lights, panning sound effects that suggest that threatening footsteps are encircling, and, most destabilizingly, long periods of true and total darkness. (When the lights are on, Jessica Hung Han Yun’s design is often mesmerizing.)

If attending an indoor performance of any kind still feels like a small surrender of control, Blindness asks audiences to give up a fair bit more. (Tickets are only sold in pairs for socially distant pod seating, but it’s still disconcerting to lose sense of the safety of the surroundings—and trust everybody else to stay masked—in the pitch blackness.) What would otherwise be dramatically effective may cross personal boundaries for some audiences at present.

Though blindness, unsurprisingly, turns out to function partly as metaphor, the discomfiting treatment of vision loss as an incapacitating, dehumanizing ailment doesn’t sit well. Stephens’s own searing adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, which opened on Broadway in 2014, empathetically and non-judgmentally staged an experience of neurodivergence, sensorily drawing the audience into the protagonist’s world. Here, however, we receive the darkness, the facsimile of blindness, as fear, as a total loss of autonomy, as bodily degeneration. And since Stevenson, the lone voice we hear, portrays the only character untouched by vision loss, there’s an ugly undercurrent in the suggestion that the blind can’t even speak for themselves.

Stevenson’s recorded performance travels potently from the impartial calm of an omniscient narrator in to the desperate frenzy and stony determination of the unnamed woman whose story Blindness is centered around. It’s Ben and Max Ringham’s chilling sound design, though, that most hauntingly lends the unmistakable sense of liveness to the proceedings.

Unlike most sojourns to the theater during the Before Times, however, the experience of seeing Blindness is far richer than simply sitting through the work itself. The joy of attending this dismally dark production lies mostly in the three-note melody of the ticket-scanner, so familiar but never-before-beloved; in the pre-show whispers beneath the welcoming announcement (“Please keep your mask on at all times” slides firmly into place, for now, to take the spot of “Please unwrap your candies now”); in the nervous knees and forward-leaning shoulders of fully present human beings, no longer tethered by their Zoom windows; and in the promise, echoed dimly in Blindness but shining brightly in the theater around it, of a path that leads, slowly, safely, cautiously, but surely, toward light.

Blindness is now running at the Daryl Roth Theatre.

Dan Rubins

Dan Rubins is a writer, composer, and arts nonprofit leader based in New York City. He has previously written about theater for CurtainUp, Theatre Is Easy, A Younger Theatre, and the journal Shakespeare.

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