'Blindness' Review: Listening to the Sound of Theater Again

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'Blindness' Review: Listening to the Sound of Theater Again
Seats are arranged in socially distant pairs for an immersive audio adaptation of the novel “Blindness,” at the Daryl Roth Theater in New York, April 2, 2021. Stimulating and immersive — yet actor-free — this audio adaptation of the Saramago novel brings the terror of an epidemic into your ears. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Maya Phillips

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- As I sat down in the dark of the Daryl Roth Theatre in my oversized high school sweatpants, Slytherin T-shirt and mercilessly beaten down pair of Chuck Taylors, one arm freshly numb from a Pfizer shot and an N95 mask desperately clinging to me like a facehugger, I had a single thought: This is not how I imagined my grand return to theater.

No matter what, I knew that after this pandemic year, the experience of watching an indoor show would be one of a kind. And when this show began, it was — in that sense and in many others.

“Blindness,” adapted by Simon Stephens from José Saramago’s acclaimed novel, is a beautifully executed immersive audio play. While it inevitably falls short of the novel’s depth, the show, which premiered in London at the Donmar Warehouse, is a stimulating sojourn back to in-person theater. And in a COVID-dominated world where old entertainments present new risks, the socially distanced, performerless show felt to me like a safe and worthy bet.

Near the theater's 15th Street entrance, stickered circles marked where patrons should line up 6 feet apart. A woman greeted me at the door and ran down instructions and safety protocols. Inside, I lifted an inner wrist for a temperature check, had my digital ticket bar code scanned, and was escorted to my seat.

There was no stage, in the traditional sense, just the meticulous arrangement of pairs of seats in a dark room, as though we were being prepared for a big game of musical chairs. Fluorescent lights illuminated in electric blues, reds and yellows hung down from the ceiling in vertical and horizontal arrangements.

And there were no actors, at least not in the flesh. A pair of headphones, sterilized and baggied, hung on the back of each chair, and through them we encountered the sole performer — the exquisite Juliet Stevenson, only in voice, though that voice turns out to be enough and then some.

In Saramago’s novel, a man inexplicably goes blind and his affliction spreads until it becomes an epidemic. Infected individuals are forced into quarantine. From there conditions worsen: fights over food, rape, murder.

The wife of an ophthalmologist who somehow retains her sight leads her husband and other blind survivors as they navigate a wretched landscape without food, water and other necessities. But beyond its plot, the novel brilliantly captures how easily the veil of order may fall away in times of catastrophe — times when hope and love seem in short supply, and the surprising places where these two virtues might survive.

With a voice dispassionate, professional and seasoned, Stevenson begins recounting how the first man went blind while driving in traffic. The lights overhead respond in kind: amber, then green. As she quotes the man’s confused declaration (“I’ve gone blind!”), all the lights go out. A few bulbs creep down to the space just above the audience’s heads as though primed for attack.

Here I want you to imagine how eyes react to an impenetrable darkness. By that I don’t mean the darkness you settle into at night, turning off the lamp at your bedside and spying halos of illumination from the street lamps outside your window. I mean the kind of darkness — a “thick paste” in the words of one character — that tires the eyes as they strain to locate the faintest touch of light.

All credit to expert lighting designer Jessica Hung Han Yun, who, under Walter Meierjohann’s exacting direction, manipulates sequences of lights in varying patterns, tones and shades to create rich textures in the space.

During an early scene in the ophthalmologist’s office, a clinical white square of illumination attacks each seating pod from overhead; a trill in the music seems to set off stutters of light; a sharp stream cuts horizontally across the room when Stevenson mentions a fatal fire; and a single yellow beam shining high in the scaffolding conjures the sun that breaks through the clouds at one moment in the story.

Backed by bare-bones audio flourishes, Stevenson seems initially to be narrating a simple and frankly unimpressive audiobook. But a subtle shift converts her into the doctor’s wife, the last woman who has retained her sight, and, following the novel, the story’s eyes and heart, and ultimately its hero.

As Stevenson leans into her performance, we become stand-ins for the wife’s confidants. Thanks to Ben and Max Ringham’s embracing sound design, the audio renders the actress unnervingly close: You can almost feel her breath on your ear as she whispers what she sees, and track her path around you as the sound bounces from one earpiece to another. I reflexively cringed when I heard the buzzing of flies, who seemed to flit around the outer curl of my ear.

As the character unravels, so does Stevenson, her voice growing breathy with desperation. In one scene, as a beastly group of blind men demand to be offered women in exchange for food, her raspy cry of “Monsters!” rises to a bone-chilling screech.

Stephens, a Tony Award winner for his stage adaptation of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” makes bold, sensible choices here, especially given the constraints of creating socially distanced theater. Yet this “Blindness” feels noticeably shorn of the most brilliant elements of Saramago’s novel. The lyric philosophizing about human nature is lost in translation, cut for Stevenson’s more direct narration. Other voices, already subdued in the book, disappear completely. Likewise, the indispensable commentary on how institutions let their people down falls by the wayside.

As soon as Stevenson utters the word “epidemic,” with a sharp British click on that “C,” the shadow of COVID-19 looms over the 70-minute play. But the coronavirus didn’t actually much come to my mind while there. This epidemic story felt too individual — too hurried, too isolated to one character, too negligent of the larger social narrative — to fully translate what we have experienced in the past year.

The production’s last minutes are abrupt, glossing over the last act of the tale in summary. It’s as though the show, produced in a world fighting a real pandemic, has no grasp yet on how the story of its fictional epidemic should conclude.

Instead of Saramago’s ending, Stephens reaches for an earlier scene that involves three women bathing in the rain. The change admirably centers the resilience of women in the story. But it ultimately feels like an empty gesture, given the ways the adaptation stints on the development of characters other than the doctor’s wife.

For someone like me, who had just read the novel, “Blindness” is more a sensory experience than a richly theatrical evocation. More than a fable about hope and humanity, it plays as a thrill for long-deprived ears and eyes.

By the time I departed the theater, the milky gray ambivalence of the afternoon sky had finally given way to rain, the kind of rain that baptizes the trio of women in the production’s last scene. I left thinking not about order and chaos, individuality and community, empathy and selfishness, as I expected I might. I only considered the blunt fact of my vision — the sights of Union Square, its pedestrians and traffic.

In other words, the electrifying panorama of the world around me — though I also knew there was so much more to be explored.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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