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Blindness review: ‘Unique first-person experience’

Blindness is performed entirely via sound, forgoing expectations of a traditional stage set and impressing the audience with its skillful immersion. The play is based upon the book of the same title by José Saramago, and presents a world in which contagious blindness becomes a health crisis. The unnamed country’s government attempts to contain the disease through military-run quarantine camps under torrid conditions, and relationships between quarantine inmates becomes seeded with mistrust and desperation. 

The experience of Blindness begins even before one enters the theatre. Tucked away in the Jowett buildings of Balliol College, a primarily residential compound, the gate entrance and the black box studio hidden behind it, are difficult to find for an outsider. The studio is dimly illuminated; upon entry the audience is met with a cast member dressed in hospital scrubs, who assures them that “everything will be alright.” Confusion sets in immediately— what could be there to worry about in a student theatre production? As our eyes adjust, however, the audience realises that this is not a stage experience they have prepared for. An array of chairs fills the room, leaving little space for a performance to take place; each chair equipped with a set of headphones and blindfolds. As the “medical staff” circulate, taking notes on their clipboards, that familiar feeling of nervousness when sitting in a hospital room— unnecessarily worried about a life-changing diagnosis— heightens the trepidation in the scenes that are about to unfold.

The play begins with the beginnings of the spread, set in an ophthalmologist’s residence. The doctor has recently seen patients that have quickly developed blindness, and has been afflicted himself overnight. The doctor’s wife still maintains her vision, but lies to the government authorities about her health in order to stay with her husband in the quarantine facility. The entirety of the performance is conducted through headphones, feeding 3D recorded audio into the audience’s ears and allowing voices— whispered or shouted— to “move” around our heads. Quickly, one realises that they are the blinded doctor guided around by their seeing wife— and we have no choice but to observe the play’s world around them through an overwhelming soundscape, unable to actively participate. 

This unique first-person experience also places the audience member in a position that provokes a meta-questioning of one’s own motives. Why remain silent? Why is the doctor’s wife seemingly the only person immune to this epidemic of blindness? What does the doctor know? At the same time, the audience member becomes slowly acclimatised to the experience of being blind, immersed as victims themselves in the play’s dystopian setting. One begins to recognize characters through their voices and their actions via other sounds; the creaking of panels giving feedback to the experience of cautiously walking down a flight of stairs, for example. In order to achieve this experience, superb voice acting— with attention to speech patterns, tone, and language— as well as perceptive choice and layering of sound effects and music are essential. The show particularly excelled in layering nature’s sounds during a crisis (such as fire crackling), the panicked voices of the characters, and undertones of reverberatory rumbling sounds to build suspense. Not having the sense of sight heightens the feeling of disorientation (where is the fire coming from? How close is it?). Violence surrounds one at every turn of the head.

Although similar productions that emerged from the Covid-19 pandemic have relied on spaced out seating for social distancing (a subtle contextual reminder of a contagion very fitting for the piece’s pandemic setting), I wondered if the seating arrangements could be adjusted, in accordance to the numbers expected, allowing audience members to sit closer together. Separated from other audience members by many seats, one felt as though sitting closer to others throughout the production would heighten the anxiety-inducing experience of being able to sense, but not see, an unknown people’s presence. This is particularly fitting for a production that portrays strangers piled together in the quarantine facility, struggling to trust one another. A more surreal experience could be achieved by not only removing the sense of sight, but adding other sensory experiences such as touch and temperature. This possibility is, however, contingent on venue limitations. Attending the performance alone or with friends could also change the feeling of loneliness or the need for connection, impacting how we experience the piece.

In the performance’s aftermath, exiting the dark room and navigating the maze of Jowett buildings and gates to emerge into the sunset-lit street hits one with a feeling of dislocated serenity. Compared to the tension within the play’s confines of grim quarantine, the world seems too bright, too quiet, too sleepy. Blindness artfully immerses the audience’s bodies and minds into a mode of anxious survival. It may not be for the faint-hearted, but serves to remind one of the privilege of good health within the bubble of a peaceful Oxford.

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