Review: Blindness, Donmar Warehouse - the intimate social distancing experience
Is it ironic that in going to the theatre with strict social distancing in place, I felt closer to an actor than at any time before?
The Donmar has opened its doors, the first major theatre in London to do so, but with live performance still not allowed it has created what is an extraordinary experience using sound.
Blindness is adapted by Simon Stephens from a novel by José Saramago and tells the story of an epidemic in which people suddenly go blind.
Juliet Stevenson plays the narrator, then the doctor's wife, the only person who can still see as society struggles to cope with its sudden predicament.
The Donmar, partially by design and partially by necessity, has been stripped back so that it is both familiar and different. The bar is stacked with boxes and equipment and stage and seating have mostly been removed from the auditorium - there are still some of the benches stacked against one of the walls.
It's transformed into an open space with pairs of seats strategically placed across the floor for social distancing but facing different directions.
The bare brick of the wall that would be the back of the stage has peeling paint and words I couldn't quite make out.
You hear Stevenson through headphones, and this is what helps make it such an extraordinary experience.
At first, she is storyteller setting the scene for what is to come.
The people who've gone blind are quarantined in old buildings in order to stop the 'infection' spreading and from there the point of view changes to the doctor's wife.
Sitting in darkness
The lights go out for prolonged periods - it really is pitch black - and you are there in the space with Stevenson's voice in your ears.
Sometimes she sounds like she's the other side of the room, you hear her stumbling around banging into things or walking past.
And then, sometimes she is so close it's like she is whispering in one of your ears as if you are her husband.
You can hear her breathing, swallowing, you expect to feel her breath on your skin. I had to fight the urge to turn towards her or shift in my seat as if she was really there.
The darkness removes visual clues and cues heightening the sound. You notice every detail, it brings a whole new level of nuance and richness to the performance.
Presence in the room
And as a result, despite the darkness you 'see' her, you feel her presence and the story unfolding around you. I've never felt closer to a performer, it is extraordinary.
This is immersive theatre, unlike anything you will have experienced before
Blindness is a dystopian horror story that nonetheless offers hope, leading you on a dark and difficult journey to the light. And that is something we need right now.
It is an extraordinary piece of storytelling and would we have got to experience it if we weren't living through these challenging times?
I'm giving Blindness ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️, over to the rest of theatreland to come up with something for these socially distanced times.
The running time is 75-minutes straight-through and there are four performances a day up until August 22. You can find more details and buy tickets on the Donmar Warehouse website.
Safety measures at the Donmar
I couldn't have felt safer on my first trip back to the theatre.
Having walked through Covent Garden and seen people gathered outside pubs with no discernible sign of social distancing, the Donmar's safety measures were organised with military precision by comparison.
And I mean that in a good way.
You queue up outside (as it was 35C we were on the shady side of the street) and one of the Donmar team, in a visor, comes and checks you off their list of ticket holders. They run through some safety measures - mask to be worn in the building etc.
Entry is one person/pair at a time and the first thing you have to do is sanitise your hands. Two-meter intervals are marked on the floor and you are encouraged to keep to that - the queue is carefully controlled at all times.
Safe distance at all times
The loos have become unisex and it is one person at a time with staff managing entry and exit so that everyone is kept at a safe distance.
You are asked to hand-sanitise before you go in and when you come out.
Entry to the theatre is safely controlled and you are told where to sit. I was one of the last to be seated and it looked like people had been seated 'row' by row to ensure everyone stays a safe distance.
Afterwards, you wait in your seat and staff organise the exit via the 'back stairs' a few people at a time so that social distancing can be more easily observed.
A note on masks, if you've forgotten yours, they do have supplies and you might want to think about the type of elastic you have on your mask.
Mine is the chord style and when I got the headphones on for the performance they squeezed against the elastic it wasn't very comfortable.
If you've got a mask with the flat elastic and ties I'd suggest using one of those just for comfort.
You might also like to read:
My trip to see socially distanced stand-up comedy at Battersea Arts Centre
Lockdown lessons for theatres in audience relations
Flashback: Seeing Jude Law in Anna Christie at the Donmar, 2011