Review: ‘Blindness’ at the Daryl Roth Theatre – A Sound-and-Light Piece for the Pandemic Age

Audience members at "Blindness" at the Daryl Roth Theatre

By Jonathan Spira on 5 April 2021
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It was an odd thing, preparing for my first foray into a theater yet I was now entering one with (gasp!) other theatergoers.  Indeed, the Daryl Roth Theatre, which is presenting an audio adaptation of the novel “Blindness” with no live actors, has  made the experience pandemic-proof. Instead of actors on stage, the audience listens, via sanitized binaural headphones, to a story narrated by the British actress and Olivier winner Juliet Stevenson, and, oddly enough for a show entitled “Blindness,” the criss-crossing, color-changing light bars that move up and down (lighting was designed by Jessica Hung and Han Yun), tell almost as much of the story as Stevenson.   The theater, a space that can hold 400 people, was limiting the audience to 12% of capacity.

Written by Simon Stephens, who won a Tony Award for his stage adaptation of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” and directed by Walter Meierjohann, “Blindness,” a thought-provoking and rather brilliant theater production at any point in time, not just during a pandemic, is the first indoor theater performance to open in New York City since Broadway was shuttered on March 12, 2020.

Mask-wearing audience members sit in pods of two that are placed in a socially-distant pattern throughout the theater, there is only one act with no late seating and no intermission, and theatergoers enter and exit through different streets to ensure that exiting members of the audience from one show don’t bump into those from the next.  The theater itself has a brand new air filtration system that meets or exceeds current requirements, all surfaces are wiped down in between performances, there are no paper tickets or Playbills, and a health questionnaire and a pre-performance temperature check are mandatory.

A “pod” of socially-distanced seats at “Blindness”

We are in London at an unspecified time.  A man who has suddenly lost his sight proclaims “I can’t see,” and a rather opportunistic infection begins to spread across the city – or perhaps beyond its borders – bringing an end to government, order, civility, and the supply chain responsible for food.  The man who has lost his sight goes to the surgery of an ophthalmologist. The following day, the ophthalmologist himself goes blind and we descend into a world of chaos and untold horrors. Stevenson is the primary voice the audience hears (the other is an uncredited voice of an authority figure who appears to give orders via megaphone), as both the Storyteller and the Doctor’s Wife.   Sometimes it seems as if Stevenson, who at this point is the only one who can see, is whispering conspiratorially in your ear and sometimes she is revealing the darkest of secrets.

At first, the victims of the plague are left to fend for themselves at an abandoned mental hospital but, as the pandemic sweeps across the city, taking with it the soldiers guarding the first patients as well as health authorities and members of the government, government becomes a useless joke.

For a show entitled “Blindness,” there is a tremendous visual element, but it’s the auditory experience that delivers.  The filth and rot that the Doctor’s Wife encounters is palpable: while we cannot see what is transpiring, nor anything really, we feel it nonetheless. Meanwhile, the binaural audio, with sound design by Ben and Max Ringham, conveys the futility and helplessness the pandemic’s victims face in addition to the violence that ensues.

There is, however, light at the end of the tunnel: “I cried my eyes out over two verbs and a personal pronoun,” Stevenson says as the doors of the Daryl Roth Theatre suddenly open, letting in the hustle and bustle of Union Square amidst a cleansing rain.  Just like that, we return to a time where there is hope that the end of the coronavirus pandemic is nigh amidst the successful rollout of vaccines in the United States, the daylight of Union Square replacing the deluge only described to us as “the most beautiful thing that has happened in this city.”

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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