Portugal’s José Saramago may just be the most important modern Nobel Prize winner in literature that you have not heard of and his most important novel may be Blindness. Adapted for the stage by British playwright Simon Stephens, Tony Award winner for The Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, the Donmar Warehouse production, a sound and light experience, now at the Daryl Roth Theatre in Union Square has become the first play to open after the Covid pandemic closed all the New York theaters in March 2020.
Read by unseen British stage star Juliet Stevenson, Blindness is as timely as Albert Camus’ The Plague with its story of an epidemic which affects first a community, then a city and finally an entire country. With the audience sitting in socially distanced pods of two, and listening on binaural headphones, the space has been equipped with bars of light both horizontal and vertical which turn either red, green, amber, blue or white and are raised and lowered at various times. However, since the story takes place in a city in which the inhabitants are struck blind, much of the play is performed in total darkness.
Saramago’s allegorical novel which is told mainly through the eyes of the doctor’s wife, the only person in the unnamed city not to be struck blind, is both enthralling and frightening as civilization breaks down in the course of privation. The opening section tells how the contagious “white blindness” spread, first from a man who was affected while driving his car, to the people in the waiting room at the ophthalmologist’s office he consults, to the doctor himself and then everyone else in the city – except for the doctor’s wife.
When the authorities decide to quarantine the first victims in an abandoned hospital for the mentally ill, the doctor’s wife pretends she is also blind in order to accompany her husband. There, as the building fills up, she witnesses first comic events due to the fact that there are no attendants and no one else there can see. Ultimately, more and more atrocities as people become panicked as food and supplies run out and the government delivers not enough for the growing population, and the soldier guards feel threatened by the inmates. The author also uses the situations for philosophical statements about the world and its discontents.
While the novel has been turned into a feature film in 2008, it is an obvious choice for a reading as it depicts a world of people in the dark, literally and figuratively. As told by Stevenson, one of the leading actresses of her generation, it is an absorbing story, cleverly truncated by Stephens, a veteran playwright whose most famous work in the U.S. also put Mark Haddon’s best-selling novel on stage.
However, if one has read the book, the stage version is disappointing. In cutting the novel’s 326 pages down to 70 minutes of stage time, much had to be eliminated. As directed by Walter Meierjohann (who also staged the London production), there is no sense of time passing, so that the frightening quality of the novel and the rising tension is gone. Many of the key passages have been eliminated or cut down: the most controversial scene dramatized in the movie is given short shrift. Unlike the book, there is no sense of the other characters on the ward with the doctor and his wife, and many actions are credited to the doctor’s wife which in the novel are committed by the other inmates, making her practically the only active person in the story.
The physical production is also a bit of a disappointment. Initially, the lighting design by Jessica Hung Han Yun offers various color effects which, other than representing the three-color traffic lights, have little or no meaning. Then the theater is plunged into darkness with quick light breaks between scenes. However, since the story is told by the doctor’s wife who can see, we would expect her to be aware of flickering shadows or lights from other wards or possibly the sunlight or moonlight through the windows. The climax of the play includes a fire but little is done with lighting to suggest this cataclysm. Even blind people might see shadows of extremely bright light.
So too the sound effects are much more minimal than one would expect in a world where people have to count on their ears, rather than their eyes. While the sound design by Ben and Max Ringham successfully travels from the left ear to right as the doctor’s wife moves around, there is no sense of other noises: the other wards that fill up, the riots over food, the explosion caused by the fire, etc.
Nevertheless, José Saramago’s Blindness is a major work of fiction alongside those by modern masters Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Orhan Pamuk. Its timeliness is undeniable in our own moment of dealing with a pandemic which also spreads from person to person. Stevenson is always an engrossing storyteller. Ultimately, those who have read the novel will probably be disappointed. It is most likely better to see the play first and then read the novel to see what has been left out. This is a noble experiment that does not quite make use of all of its possibilities. However, as a cautionary tale, Blindness is an important work for our time.
Blindness (through July 25, 2021)
Daryl Roth Theatre, 101 E. 15th Street at Union Square East, in Manhattan
For tickets, call Telecharge at 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.blindnessevent.com
Running time: 75 minutes with no intermission
Approved masks are required at all times in the theater and the pods of two seats each are all social distanced six feet apart. This show required the use of headsets which are sanitized following CDC guidelines after each use.