Donmar Warehouse, London ★★★★✩
RIGHT now, it seems a small miracle that this penetrating, inventive piece of theatre exists at all. That it also speaks so eloquently to our Covid-afflicted present and our common humanity is an exhilarating testament to the power and necessity of art — not least at times of crisis.
It’s adapted from Jose Saramago’s novel, in which a city is stricken by an epidemic of blindness. A bright, white sightlessness descends without warning — and it’s virulently contagious. The rudderless government loses control (sound familiar?), society disintegrates and new hierarchies emerge, with the uninfected free to exploit and abuse. But there is hope, too, of rebuilding something better.
Written by Simon Stephens, Walter Meierjohann’s production shrewdly embraces social distancing safeguards. Masks must be worn throughout, ramping up the sweaty, claustrophobic intensity. There are no live actors; the narrative unspools through binaural headphones, delivered by Juliet Stevenson as a doctor’s wife who escapes the virus and becomes a horrified witness and reluctant hero. The audience is scattered around the bare stage. Overhead hang angular rods of light, which rise and fall, changing colour, before blinking out, leaving us in absolute darkness.
It’s an unnervingly intimate experience, with Stevenson’s feverish voice so close you can almost feel her hot breath on your skin. The sense of disorientation scarcely abates when the lights come up and you find yourself surrounded by masked figures, too far away to touch.
It’s not always easy to endure. But at this particular historical moment, it is a unique and unforgettable achievement.
■ Blindness runs until August 22. donmarwarehouse.com