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review

An Aug. 4 preview performance of Blindness from Mirvish Productions at the Princess of Wales Theatre.Mirvish Productions

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  • Title: Blindness
  • Based on the novel by: Jose Saramago
  • Adapted by: Simon Stephens
  • Directed by: Walter Meierjohann
  • Company: A Donmar Warehouse production presented by David Mirvish
  • Venue: The Princess of Wales Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: To Aug. 29

I may have maintained physical distance easily, but it was hard for me to keep any critical distance at the opening performance of Blindness at the Princess of Wales Theatre on Thursday.

I was simply overjoyed to be back inside a theatre reviewing a show.

The Princess of Wales was, in fact, where I attended my last indoor show in Toronto before the pandemic hit. So it felt particularly emotional to return to that grand King Street palace for my first real indoor theatrical experience in more than 16 months.

Sure, Mirvish Productions is describing this presentation that originated at the Donmar Warehouse in London, England, as a “socially distanced sound installation” and it has no live actors, but that’s close enough for me. I was giddy just getting to seeing the theatre’s colourful murals by abstract expressionist Frank Stella again, and when I spotted producer David Mirvish, I had to repress an urge to give him a hug.

On to the show itself. The production of Miss Saigon that opened the Princess of Wales close to three decades ago now was most famous for a scene in which a helicopter landed on the stage.

Blindness immerses the audience in the societal chaos that spreads alongside sudden sightlessness in an unnamed city in an unnamed country.Mirvish Productions

Well, you might say Blindness, an adaptation of Jose Saramago’s novel about a fictional epidemic of blindness, goes a step further by landing an entire audience onto the theatre’s stage.

A troupe of ushers pulls off the trick by leading patrons in a well-organized fashion on a journey from the front lobby, up a flight of stairs and then through the wings to the other side of the proscenium.

There, an audience of just 50 people – all wearing masks and physically distanced in pairs or singles – is seated for each 75-minute performance, half facing one direction and half facing the other. To one side, the theatre’s usual seating area is hidden behind a curtain; to the other is a brick wall where these words are written: “If you can see, look. If you can look, observe.” Fluorescent lights hang above ominously like glowing guillotines.

There are sanitized headphones to put on, and after all the patrons have done so the stage lights go down and the show properly begins.

Blindness, adapted here by the well-regarded, workmanlike English playwright Simon Stephens (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Harper Regan), immerses the audience in the societal chaos that spreads alongside sudden sightlessness in an unnamed city in an unnamed country.

English actor Juliet Stevenson is first heard through the headphones as an all-seeing narrator, seeming to recite an abridged version of the novel and outlining how the blindness began.

A man, the patient zero, is driving his car when his vision is filled suddenly by a milky white. A woman goes blind at the height of a romantic liaison. An ophthalmologist loses his own sight after seeing a patient who’s been struck with blindness – and is the first to sound the alarm to the government.

At a certain point, however, Stevenson stops narrating and starts speaking as the character of the ophthalmologist’s wife – a woman who only pretends to have gone blind in order to accompany her husband into quarantine.

I was truly moved by how the narration was accompanied by the designer Jessica Hung Han Yun’s emotive lighting.Mirvish Productions

Blindness is described as having no live actors, but that’s not entirely true: You, and every other audience member, are tasked with playing the role of the ophthalmologist. Stevenson whispers to you descriptions of what she is witnessing as the only sighted person in a quarantine zone guarded by soldiers and soon flooded with the afflicted.

This audio (designed by Ben and Max Ringham) has a spatial dimension: It was recorded with a special binaural microphone that Stevenson didn’t just speak into, but acted around. It can sound as if she is breathing right next to you one moment, then is across the room trying to negotiate for food the next.

While this is cool, the technology does sometimes seem put to strange use. The doctor’s wife is the only one who can see in the novel, not the only one who can talk – and I found it at times hard to suspend my disbelief during all the one-sided conversations she has. The naturalistic “blindness” experienced sitting in the pitch dark clashes in a way with the stagier aspects of Stephens’s script.

The action sequences experienced in this way, mind you, were often thrilling – though at other times could also sound like, well, a single actor running around a recording studio knocking over objects.

I was more often truly moved by how the narration was accompanied by the designer Jessica Hung Han Yun’s emotive lighting, her creative use of the hanging fluorescents and, later, other sources of illumination that faded in or out from unexpected places.

Indeed, there was one visual reveal that took my breath away and, briefly, made me feel the full weight of all that has been missing from life during our own pandemic. I won’t write anything more about that so as not to spoil anyone else’s glorious return to indoor theatre.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage.

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