LONDON — Finally, some light in the darkness. The Donmar Warehouse has made stage history as the first playhouse here to open its doors to a paying public in the almost five months since the coronavirus lockdown began. Brave? Yes, and, even better, with a brilliant production.
The chosen title, running through Aug. 22, is a new and apposite adaptation of the Nobel laureate José Saramago’s 1995 novel, “Blindness.” The story of a society sent into free fall by a pandemic is having its premiere before socially distanced audiences that will find its message urgent.
Provocative, disturbing, yet with glimmers of hope near the end, this “Blindness” has been conceived by the Tony Award-winning playwright Simon Stephens and the director Walter Meierjohann as a sound installation heard via headphones. There are no actors present.
The result is a triumph, but possibly a challenge for Covid-weary listeners. Those wanting an escape from talk of plague must seek entertainment elsewhere. (Never fear, devotees of levity: There’s a musical version of the film “Sleepless in Seattle” scheduled to open here in September.)
“Blindness” is no ordinary theatrical experience, but then we live in extraordinary times. The audience lines up outside the venue, in the Covent Garden district, wearing masks and keeping distance. Inside, there is plenty of hand sanitizer, but no bar or playbills. The production is running four times a day, like a movie, enabling the Donmar to make up some of the revenue it’s losing by restricting numbers in the auditorium to about 20 percent of its usual capacity.
As the spectators take their seats singly or in pairs under a grid of fluorescent tubes, the atmosphere is one of anticipation but perhaps bewilderment, too: What will so intriguing a venture give us visually? The answer is that “Blindness,” in keeping with its title, puts the auditory experience first. Often, the lights are off altogether, and the emphasis is on the recorded voice — mellifluous to start with, but with added menace over time — of the distinguished actress Juliet Stevenson, who is at her very best.
Stevenson is our guide in an apocalyptic allegory about an outbreak of blindness — a “white sickness” — that causes a society to break down. The actress starts out as a scene-setting “storyteller” before assuming another role as the play’s sole sighted character. Hers is the only voice throughout except for that of a second actor, Angus Wright, who is heard briefly as a fearsome authority figure.
On the brick wall at the back of the Donmar, the words “If you can see, look; if you can look, observe” have been scrawled as part of the designer Lizzie Clachan’s cunning makeover of the space, and those words recur once Stevenson’s narrative begins. The story begins to burrow deep into our heads in the absence of much to look at beyond our fellow playgoers — and nothing whatsoever once the room turns black without warning.
So penetrating is the sound design in the headphones, from Ben and Max Ringham, that I was startled more than once by the sense that Stevenson’s voice was rising up from somewhere deep within me. (The sensory claustrophobia might be too much for some.)
The landscape evoked is of deserted streets, coupled with the breakdown in the social order that extends well beyond anything Covid-19 has unleashed (thank heavens). Other parts are more familiar: The characters dream of a cure and talk of “a government of the blind trying to rule the blind.”
This isn’t “Blindness’s” first adaptation — another version, with a large cast, ran off Broadway in 2007, and a year later came the Fernando Mereilles film — and some may feel that an offering of this sort isn’t even a play. Why pay to sit for 75 minutes being plunged into and out of total darkness when you could just listen to it on the radio or as a podcast?
The difference, of course, is the audience, present in a shared space after such a long time away. The need to come together, even amid depravity and disorder, is a theme of the story, too.
And besides, as Stephens’s adaptation makes clear, situations can be reversed. “This blindness started so suddenly. It can end just as suddenly,” we are told on the way to a poetic ending in which a cleansing rain helps put things right — a deluge celebrated as “the most beautiful thing that has happened in this city.”
Then, the emphasis shifts from a story of illness and misrule toward a meditation on the power of language: Words themselves help us to see. “I cried my heart out because of two verbs and a personal pronoun,” Stevenson says as the doors of the Donmar’s darkened auditorium unexpectedly open. And with that, our eyes adjust to the early evening sky, as we move away from crisis toward clarity.
Through Aug. 22 at the Donmar Warehouse in London; donmarwarehouse.com.