Originally conceived before the pandemic, “Blindness” comes to D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) after runs in New York and London, where it drew attention because it doesn’t actually require any actors to be present. Instead, the audience takes the stage.
On each seat, there are a set of binaural or 3D headphones that theatergoers wear. The staging relies on the light design of Jessica Hung Han Yun, the sound design of Ben and Max Ringham, and the voice of of BAFTA-nominated actress Juliet Stevenson to set the scene. The play, at STC through June 13, tells the story of a woman leading her chosen tribe through an epidemic of vision loss that besets an unknown city, and was adapted for the stage from the José Saramago novel by Simon Stephens.
The show starts at ground zero of the epidemic, with Stevenson sharing that one man in traffic suddenly went blind. From there, she traces how the virus arrives at the home of her character, an ophthalmologist’s wife. Her husband goes blind; although she is apparently immune, when her husband is taken to a quarantine facility she pretends that she’s blind too so that she can go with him.
At this point in the story, the lights go down and the 3D sound design of the Ringham brothers comes off to great effect. It simulates what the characters are going through, and Stevenson whispers over your shoulder as if you were her husband or another member of the group. Even in the pitch dark, you could swear Stevenson is running right behind you.
As the hierarchy of the quarantine facility eventually breaks down, the show takes on a post-apocalyptic tone and becomes very intense. You hear Stevenson have to make awful decisions for herself and those around her, like dealing with a group of men demanding sex in return for food.
“She becomes this feral, Amazonian, battling creature, obsessed with keeping her tribe fed and safe,” says Stevenson of her character.
When the group does break out of the facility, they find that the rest of society has broken down too. Stevenson leads her tribe back through the derelict city to her old home, which they find unscathed and clean. For obvious reasons, Stevenson’s character can’t help but harp on how filthy the world has become. Here, Stevenson says the show ends with a ray of light.
“The piece finishes with this sense of a new world order that might be possible – that through the destruction of so much, we might be able to forge a different way of being,” she says.
For showgoers, though, that sense of hope might be hard to appreciate. The show closes with an apparent end to the epidemic in sight, but as the world of the play is still in ruins and after the trauma that they’ve gone through, it’s hard to imagine anything but a bleak future.
“Blindness” runs May 1 – June 13 at Sidney Harman Hall. Shows last 70 minutes and tickets must be bought in pairs. Various ticket prices. Visit www.shakespearetheatre.org and follow @shakespeareindc on Instagram for more information and to purchase tickets.
STC’s Sidney Harman Hall: 610 F St. NW, DC; 202-547-1122
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