Theatrical projects could “pivot” massively in size and scope even before COVID-19 popularized the term.
When the Tony-winning English playwright Simon Stephens was invited to adapt the novel Blindness, for instance, he originally envisaged a huge production that would bring author José Saramago’s depiction of a fictional epidemic of vision loss to the stage with a cast of 20 and hundreds of dancers.
But years later, after an exciting day workshopping the show with the actor Juliet Stevenson, Stephens had a complete change of heart while in the shower – and rewrote his script for just one actor.
It wasn’t a huge challenge, then, to adapt that version of Blindness for a pandemic-friendly production that premiered at the Donmar Warehouse in London last August – a “socially distanced sound installation” with no live actors at all, only the voice of Stevenson heard through headphones.
Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre will reopen with this rendition of Blindness, presented by Mirvish Productions beginning August 4. Stephens spoke to The Globe and Mail about the unusual production by phone – and from a surprising location.
Are you in London or Manchester – where you teach – right now?
Well, that’s quite a story. I’m in Barcelona. My family came out for a few days’ holiday when I finished teaching. Both myself and my 14-year-old daughter tested positive for coronavirus before we got our flights, so my wife and sons went back to England, but I had to stay [here] for 10 days in isolation.
So, you currently have COVID?
Despite being fully vaccinated, I nevertheless contracted COVID last week. But myself and my daughter both tested negative this morning, so we’re free to fly now.
How did the virus affect you, having been vaccinated? Is your daughter also vaccinated?
No, we’ve not started vaccinating anybody under 18 in the U.K. yet. Her symptoms were mainly exhaustion; she spent, like, 48 hours in bed. I had a mild headache and I had a loss of sense of smell. Then I’ve had waves of real fatigue. Two or three times a day, I’d just be sitting at my desk, and I’d put my head down and go to sleep.
Wow. I’m glad that you’re okay now. This sort of frames our discussion differently than I expected. We’ve got Blindness opening here in Toronto almost a year after it premiered at the Donmar. If you can cast your mind back to that time…
All those years ago – to the before times.
Was this something you were working on before the pandemic started?
Yes. The director Walter Meierjohann has been wanting to make some kind of dramatic adaptation of the Saramago novel for 20 years. It resonated when he was working in East Germany in the Noughts in the build-up to the financial crash, when there was the rise of the right in a way that was really unsettling to him. It also felt as though it made sense in Britain during Brexit, which is when he brought it to me. There’s something deep in the tectonics of the novel that really resonates when it comes to considerations of humanity in extremis.
What was really exciting to me was the difference between my reading of the novel and Walter’s reading, because I think he was really startled when I told him that I found it oddly uplifting. But there was something that moved me in a way that I didn’t find bleak and pessimistic … I think in the end, it’s uplifting because it’s told from the point of view of a character who survives the unimaginable.
So you already had moved from a large-scale, big-cast idea to a one-person show before the pandemic hit. How much did you have to change things for this new version?
Very little, really. A part of my idea was always that if we could put the audience in the subjective position of being the person that the doctor’s wife in the novel is talking to, then they would engage completely in what was happening in the drama. That’s still what we do. The main collaboration was with the sound designers the Ringham brothers, Ben and Max. Are you familiar with the binaural microphone?
I’ve only read about it. How would you describe it?
It’s crazy, man. It’s a microphone that’s shaped like a human skull. It replicates sound in three dimensions quite perfectly, so you can have an actor running across the room while screaming, as we do in the show – and when you listen to it on headphones, it feels completely like you are in the room with Juliet Stevenson running, screaming across the room to you. It’s experiential and intimate and deeply theatrical, I think.
It’s interesting to hear you say Blindness is uplifting, because my impression of the novel is that it is pretty bleak about what can happen in an epidemic – the social order breaks down pretty dramatically. I’m interested in how you look at what your show depicts and how that has changed from last year to this year.
I think for Saramago, writing at the end of the dictatorship in Portugal, blindness was a metaphor. He wasn’t necessarily writing about pandemic science or human beings under pandemic – he was writing about the necessity for human beings who can see atrocity to find the courage to say that they can see something atrocious happening. It’s a political fable.
Last summer, I think it felt as though the play had a warning to it – of the urgent need for political organization, for organizing society, for finding language and modes of communication of sharing with one another and trusting one another.
The cultures that I was fortunate to have experienced during the pandemic did come together, did use science, did use language, did trust one another. So perhaps, you know, we’re better than Saramago predicted or imagined. But I maintain the idea five years on – as we still sit in the heart of the pandemic, really, as my isolation is testimony to – that the novel is a novel about the possibility of survival. I find it optimistic in that sense.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Blindness runs August 4 to 29 at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto. For tickets and information on COVID-19 safety measures, visit mirvish.com. Keep up to date with the weekly Nestruck on Theatre newsletter. Sign up today.