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Weekend Extra: Juliet Stevenson on Blindness, the perfect play for pandemic-stricken times

Head on: Juliet says new work Blindness is about confronting your worst nightmares

JULIET STEVENSON, arguably most well known for Truly, Madly, Deeply, a movie she made with the late, great Alan Rickman 30 years ago, might be one of Britain’s best-known stage actresses, starring in a constant stream of acclaimed productions. Yet I am catching her just as she emerges — from her bunker.

‘We built this mad den out of duvets, mattresses and futons. We were like a couple of kids. It is just big enough for me to squeeze into,’ she says.

But the den is not a shelter built for a coming apocalypse. It’s a home-made sound studio in which the actress has just recorded her eighth audiobook since lockdown. Had the pandemic not hit, Juliet would have recently finished appearing in the West End transfer of The Doctor, Robert Icke’s radically reimagined version of Arthur Schnitzler’s 1912 play Professor Bernhardi, which was first seen at the Almeida Theatre last year.

But as with every live show, the pandemic killed off those plans. ‘I just thought, “How am I going to make a living?”’ she says.

Taking the mic: Juliet with her binaural microphone

The ‘den’ was constructed with the help of her long-term partner, anthropologist Hugh Brody, with whom Juliet has been living through lockdown in the couple’s ‘tiny’ country home in Suffolk. ‘Hugh has quite serious underlying health conditions — it’s that phrase we’ve all got used to,’ she explains. ‘He has no immune system, and his doctors said just before lockdown that he had to get out of London.’

The den sounds the perfect place in which to make Juliet’s latest theatre project, Blindness, for which she has recorded the narration. But, no. Instead, Juliet travelled into central London to work with specialist sound designers and binaural equipment that immerses the listener in an eerily convincing 3D soundscape. ‘I felt really nervous coming into central London for the first time [since lockdown], like someone who lived on Skye or something,’ she admits.

Based on the nightmarish novel by Nobel Prize-winning author José Saramago, the work is adapted by Simon Stephens, who turned Mark Haddon’s bestseller The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time into an award-winning play. It imagines an epidemic in which blindness spreads like a virus.

‘I suppose you could say Blindness is a manifestation of everybody’s worst Covid nightmares,’ says Juliet. The work has allowed the Donmar Warehouse — a tiny, 251-seat theatrical powerhouse that attracts big names such as Nicole Kidman and Ian McKellen to its stage — to be the first London theatre to open its doors to the public since the pandemic hit.

Blindness, however, is not so much a play as an installation, which can be accessed by a socially distancing audience of 40, four times a day.

‘In this piece everyone is blind except my character,’ explains Juliet. ‘She is the only one whose eyesight remains. She becomes the leader of her group quarantined in this mental asylum outside the city. Society breaks down. It’s about who is going to survive in this dog-eat-dog world. It’s really bloody and violent.’

The relevance of the work is obvious. Juliet did wonder ‘whether people want to go to the theatre to see a piece about an epidemic. But it’s a very different story.’

The idea to adapt the work for theatre has been around for at least a couple of years. When it was being developed, the creatives thought it worked best as a metaphor for Brexit and about the spread of something that tears a country apart. Events have changed that interpretation.

For Juliet, the piece now reflects the lockdown-induced experience of realising that you are not quite who you are. ‘In my case, it was like, “Oh, you really struggle when you don’t have a structure to your day handed to you,”’ she admits. ‘I didn’t like that about myself. Everyone will have encountered themselves in a way they hadn’t before. And that’s what Blindness is about, this eruption of a character who starts as a perfectly likeable wife to an optician running his surgery, living in a perfectly nice suburban house, and becomes a lioness — a murdering monster.

‘As the survival drive emerges, she doesn’t recognise herself. So how does she put herself back together again? How does she go back to who she was? That’s a familiar conversation after Covid, isn’t it? Do we go back or do we move forward?’

‘It went off in my face. But I always like it when wild stuff happens on stage’

The production is on the frontline in the battle to keep theatre alive. Joining that fight is the Old Vic’s latest live-streamed production, the world premiere of Three Kings starring Andrew Scott, whose acclaimed, modern Hamlet of 2017 featured guns instead of swords. Juliet has particularly good reason to remember it.

She played the Danish prince’s mother, Gertrude, and in one heated scene Scott accidentally shot her in the face.

‘That was hilarious,’ laughs Juliet. ‘Very adorably, he hated that gun so much, we were always a bit nervous when he had to pull it out.

‘There were three of us in that scene — me, Andrew and the gun, which that night decided it wanted a leading role.

‘So, Andrew pointed it at my face, to get me to sit down while I’m beseeching him to be calm. You feel for one panicky moment he is going to kill her. And yes, it went off in my face. But I always like it when wild stuff happens on stage, as long as no one gets hurt.

‘To be genuinely terrified is an amazing feeling. One moment I thought I was acting genuinely terrified and thinking I was doing a good job, then next I am genuinely terrified and I see I was doing a s*** job!”

As Juliet laughs, the story almost feels like a nostalgic memory from a bygone era of theatre and acting, especially with talk of a second pandemic wave gathering pace. Yet Juliet remains hopeful.

‘What’s been really lovely and encouraging is that the tickets sold really fast. So, there is a hunger out there for people to come back into theatres and see proper live events,’ she observes.

It is, she says, particularly tough now for young actors who ‘have left drama school, haven’t got established yet and are finding there is no one to employ them’.

Yet Juliet also sees an opportunity for theatre ‘to think afresh and find new forms’. And in the meantime Blindness can give people some relief, she hopes.

‘They’ll go home and think, “Oh, we had quite a good lockdown.”’

Blindness runs at the Donmar Warehouse from Saturday until August 22,