Blindess, Donmar Warehouse at the Shakespeare Theatre Company

 In early modern theatre studies, "shared light" is one of the defining features of William Shakespeare's stage. Audiences could see the actors, naturally, but the actors could also look out into the audience and see them just as clearly. Going to the theatre meant being in the same light, breathing the same air, hearing the same sounds and feeling the swell of a reaction from the crowd be received on stage and volleyed back out through the energy of the performances. The collaborative beauty that gives theatre life turns out to be exactly what has made it so dangerous over the last year, even as we all craved its presence in our lives. 

A photo of stripped down theatre space. Audience members sit in spaced-out pairs of chairs, each wearing a large set of headphones. Light fixtures shaped like thin, long tubes have been lowered to face level and hang in the spaces between audience chairs. On the bare brick wall, the words "CAN SEE LOOK" and underneath, "CAN LOOK. OBSERVE." are written in white paint.
Photos from the Donmar Warehouse's 2020 production of Blindness by Helen Maybanks.

Enter, last fall, London's Donmar Warehouse, which opened Blindness in the fall of 2020 and which is now on stage at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. The production, which plays in the margins of traditional theatre, is adapted by playwright Simon Stephens from the novel by José Saramago of the same name, and unsurprisingly, suits the constraints of the present moment perfectly. Instead of live actors, the piece is performed as an audio play performed by actress Juliet Stevenson and directed by Walter Meierjohann. Blindness was originally slated to come to DC last fall, but had to reschedule due to the pandemic, and nine months without live theatre became a year and more. As the months dragged on, I idly wondered if Blindness, when it finally could come to town, even counted as theatre; I initially concluded that I didn't care, I just wanted to be in a theatre again with art.

But when I found myself getting on the metro for the first time in over a year, stepping out at Gallery Place and walking up to Sidney Harman Hall... it still didn't matter. I had been watching a woman walking in the same direction as I was towards the theatre, and I realized with a thrill that she was going to the same place I was, that we would be there together. She paused outside the theatre and lifted up her phone to take a picture of the building, to share with friends, perhaps, and show that she was at the theatre again, or maybe just to savor for herself. I think so many of us have shared that sense of anticipation, that sense of, please, just let me in that empty box again so we can fill it with life together. 

The lobbies of the Harman are still familiar, but audiences aren't brought into the house for Blindness; rather, all the seating is carefully arranged and distanced on the stage itself. The performer might be inside a pair of headphones instead of in front of us, but when a square of red light illuminated my seat, it felt like theatre: light blooming in a space at just the right time for an audience to see and appreciate it. Designers and artists worked together to create an experience that I shared with others around meBen and Max Ringham as sound designers, Lizzie Clachan as designer, and Jessica Jung Han Yun as lighting designer, but also there was the woman across from me who checked her phone in a blackout (!), the elderly couple who held hands during the final twenty minutes, and the young woman who sat almost without moving, quiet and still for the entire 75 minutes. Artists and audience came together and made a unique experience, made theatre again.


A photo taken from a high angle. Long thin cylinders of light hang over the space, illuminated in green. Below, pairs of chairs are spaced out on the floor, each pair illuminated in white light. Theatre patrons are sitting in most of the chair, each wearing a pair of headphones.
Photos from the Donmar Warehouse's 2020 production of Blindness by Helen Maybanks.

It should also be said, of course, that's it's quite good. Beyond the context of a public hungry for a beloved and vital art form, it's a skillful translation of a novel into a theatrical experience, and Stevenson is wrenchingly tremendous. The piece moves from her detached narration of an impossible, life altering epidemic of blindness as it spreads from person to person into a gripping narrative of a woman surviving a lawless quarantine. The sound engineering is impeccable and the performance is arresting, combining light and sound and space to transform an empty theatre into its own art.

I do think there is a conversation to be had about the selection of a piece that undoes a lot of the good that happened in this last year for theatre lovers with disabilities. In Blindness, deaf patrons are by necessity excluded from the fundamental experience taking place at the Harman, and blindness itself is turned into a creeping horror. It's a metaphor, sure, butoof. 

As the piece ended and we waited to carefully and safely exit the theatre, I heard the sound of theatregoers excitedly dissecting a performance again for the first time in over a year. What worked for them, what didn't work, remember that one moment when? I was still stuck on the audacity of someone thinkng it was time to check her phone in a blackouta blackout!! Imagine, after a year spent living alone in your tiny apartment, surviving on Zoom calls and solitary walks, the joy, the privilege of grumping over basic theatre etiquette. 

It almost doesn't matter that the show is good, but it is. It almost doesn't matter that the first theatre I've seen in a year in DC didn't feature any DC actors, but it does, a bit.  The American theatre as a whole is long overdue for a reckoning, and I hope that the Shakespeare Theatre engages sincerely and deeply in that process. For now, though, I'm grateful that I had the chance to be back in a theatre, sitting with strangers and hearing a play.


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