Mayor Bill de Blasio—so tall, really a human redwood—was there, speaking about the moment being a new dawn for theater in New York City. Indeed, theater was “back,” he told the cameras.
The line of people he came to greet waiting to see the first performance of Blindness at the Daryl Roth Theatre off Union Square was collectively, properly masked, but still a line, still packed closely together, reminding this critic that whatever measures being taken inside theaters, the line outside a theater right now remains just as it always was—an expectant, kettled huddle.
“At some point, you just make a decision about the risk you are going to take,” someone in Friday’s line said.
That afternoon, New York City officially returned to the theater, over a year since March 12, 2020, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Broadway closedown took effect—and on Tuesday night Blindness (presently booking to Sept. 5) becomes the first major, ongoing show to have an opening night.
But it is also a play—transferred from London’s Donmar Warehouse—still very much conceived with safety in mind. Unlike Broadway—which, we are told, will return in the fall to no social distancing for audiences but temperature checks and mask-wearing a certainty—the crowd was socially distanced once inside. We were zapped by a temperature checker on entry, and shown to our seats. (Bunches of two seats placed together, so whoever your theater-mate is, make sure you feel comfortable with each other.) This is a play with no physical actors.
The seats, in either side-by-side or facing each other duos, were scattered around the cavernous space, artfully designed by Lizzie Clachan to feel like half disaster site, half place of worship. Tubular neon lights—elongated Star Wars light sabers—shone white, blue, green, and red around us. Startlingly conceived by Jessica Hung Han Yun, they rose up and descended close to us like luminous bleachers.
There are headphones on each seat, and you must test that both left and right ear are working. And then 75 minutes of brilliant, traumatizing theatrical hell begins.
When I spoke to Roth last year, she imagined theater returning with solo shows, or perhaps shows that made people feel better. My memory of that conversation made me smile as Blindness’ intensity progressed. Directed by Walter Meierjohann, it is the furthest from a feel-good return-to-the-theater one could imagine, until its elegiac closing moments.
The play takes part in three settings: “The City, a fluid space,” “The Hospital, a concrete space,” and “The Rain, an empty space.” We sit and listen to be mentally transported to each of them.
The play, like a live radio-play piped into your ears, is adapted by Simon Stephens from José Saramago’s 1995 novel (translated by Giovani Pontiero), in which a seemingly random strange incident—a man is suddenly struck blind—develops suddenly into a pandemic, and suddenly a hideously visceral internment and fight for survival in a dank mental institution begins.
The headphones are important because it is through them that the sound of Olivier Award-winning actor Juliet Stevenson’s voice is transmitted as both narrator and the partner of the man originally struck blind; and that man, who doesn’t say a word, is us. For long stretches of time, all we hear is Stevenson’s voice speaking to us, quiet, furious, enraged, out of control, desperate, comforting, in control, intimate. She is whispering into your ear, and you naturally turn your head, because she just has to be there.
Sometimes she is walking around the cell we are in, plotting escape, swearing revenge, trying to find a way to get food or medicine. The sound design of Blindness is a work of genius, with volume and distances perfectly conceived by Ben and Max Ringham.
At one point, Stevenson asks if she can touch you on your shoulder. And I felt someone touch me on my shoulder, and in the pitch black was too freaked out to see if anyone was there. (My theater partner did not feel anyone touch him on his shoulder, so maybe I just have very suggestible shoulders.) When the lights periodically flashed on in moments of jolting crisis, this critic looked around to see some people with their eyes open, others with them closed, faces bowed down to chests.
You can leave the theater any time you want. There are little flashlights beside every seat, and this critic did see some lights and wandering feet during the 70 minutes—but were these escapees or folks conspiring to scare us silly? The headphones and regular descents into pitch black mean it feels we really are in the mental institution. The beauty and rawness of Saramago’s writing is also mesmerizing; there is an awful poetry to the plights we are made privy to. And then there is Stevenson.
If you recall her not just gripped but consumed by grief in Truly, Madly Deeply (opposite Alan Rickman, for which she was BAFTA-nominated), you know that Stevenson can do “intense” like no other, and here she is piped directly into your ears, and apparently all around you.
One’s fear increases as more people become sick, as the guards brutalize more inmates, as Stevenson begins to lose it, and then she is armed and willing to do anything to escape—and take you with her. You are glad she is on your side. She is the only one who can see. But where will she take you? Might she kill you, slash at you? What will the world be like if and when she and you rejoin it? We sit in darkness; those of us who can see find our sight useless. We are disempowered. We are prisoners, vulnerable.
The test the play enacts is in its title: the many meanings of blindness—literal and psychological—King Lear puts on Lear, Gloucester, and Albany are experienced by the characters of Blindness. A pandemic has made the world physically blind, which brings a kind of moral blindness in its wake. Stevenson can physically see, but what she can see is too much to bear and so her sight is a strength and also weakness.
What may be most piercing for an audience right now is how present the play feels, after living through 13 months of the pandemic. The apocalypse Saramago imagined was an extreme before the coronavirus. But now, parts of it ring discordantly close.
We now move through a world that is universally afflicted by the coronavirus, even if the experiences of the pandemic are felt differently by so many. We too have witnessed the cataclysm of moments of social breakdown and failure of authority—from President Trump’s catastrophic failure of leadership, to Derek Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck, to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
Even in this theater, listening to this story of chaos and terror, we sit apart, by stipulation. The possibility of infection is everywhere in Saramago’s world, and in our own. Blindness today feels acutely close to home, a parable of terror that has now been made real.
“I can’t believe this is happening. It’s against all the rules of humanity,” Stevenson cries out at one point, and your mind flicks to a gallery of awfulness we have experienced watching the news these last few months. The dead need to be buried, she says. “If we leave them, they will infect the air,” she says. “Poisoned air circulates. It’ll get over the walls. It will reach the air that you breathe.”
And, of course, that is our air now, freighted with anxiety. You may recall the early era of the pandemic: the dead left to die alone and be buried alone, and sometimes not be tended with care. Saramago notes how frighteningly easy a pandemic-hit world can descend; and we have seen our own versions of the same. Stevenson’s bravery and fortitude is admirable, but no match for the brutality and debasement she confronts.
Just as the play is debuting as the world experiences the possible relief offered by vaccines, so Saramago ultimately leads us to a place of catharsis, “The Rain.” We are very literally led out of the darkness that assails us physically for much of Blindness, and made to face the world. That world may seem ordinary, and right now not the most secure place to be. But the play wants us to see it is there that life is, a life that must be lived and embraced—together, each of us embracing a duty of care to one another.
The blindness in the play is a condition but also a metaphorical space for some kind of collective self-interrogation and psychological reset; the “sight” people return to might also mean a newfound appreciation of the world and collective, civic responsibility. People have wondered the same about what might occur once lockdowns end.
The question for us, is this ambition and idealism realizable, or will we return to our old ways, and familiar, selfish ways, once the world resumes some kind of normality? Saramago doesn’t supply an answer for this, except the words of counsel that open the play and are scrawled on the cavernous walls: “If you can see, look. If you can look, observe.”