Theatre review: The Blind | Planet Lem, Old College Quad (Venue 311). Edinburgh

Teatr Biuro Podrozy turn the Old Quad into the troubled Planet Lem. Picture: Neil Hanna
Teatr Biuro Podrozy turn the Old Quad into the troubled Planet Lem. Picture: Neil Hanna
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IN THE dark and handsome square of Old College Quad, elegant couples are dancing, dressed in clothes that recall the 1950s, or maybe the early 1960s. ****

The Blind

Star rating: * * * *

Planet Lem

Star rating: * * * *

Old College Quad 
(Venue 311)

Their dance has hardly begun, though, when something happens; to a wailing crescendo of sound, as a roaring wind of change blows sparkling fragments through their lives, they begin to gasp and grope, as they realise that their whole city – perhaps their whole world – has been struck by blindness.

This is the opening sequence of The Blind, by Theatre KTO of Krakow, based on the 1995 novel by Nobel prize-winning Portuguese writer José Saramago; and it is spectacular enough in itself. What follows, though, in Jerzy Zon’s production, is even more breathtaking, as the blinded citizens find themselves herded together in something like a giant hospital ward, where they use the wheeled beds to form aisles and barricades, ramparts and towers, battering-rams and creaking via dolorosas, along which – in one of many tremendous visual tableaux – they process in a desperate parody of faith.

There are ferocious conflicts and quiet efforts at cleansing and healing, battles, rapes and more frenzied dancing, before the blindness suddenly vanishes as swiftly as it came. And there are also echoes of other great literary images of blindness, from the blind seer Tiresias of Greek tragedy, to Maeterlinck’s Les Aveugles, with its group of blind people on a troubled pilgrimage; in this powerful and beautifully acted visual drama about a society’s instinctive response to a crisis that kills no-one, but changes everything, and reveals many disturbing truths.

If KTO’s show transforms the Quad into a city ravaged by blindness, then Planet Lem – the latest show from the legendary Teatr Biuro Podrozy of Poznan – makes it represent a whole troubled planet, and some of the intergalactic space surrounding it. Based on the work of the great science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem – author of Solaris – Planet Lem combines extreme spectacle with a strong, simple adventure narrative, as our hero travels from Earth to challenge the totalitarian ruling power on a distant planet. There, a class of helpless, infantilised workers toil endlessly to supply their rulers with energy, while being doped with narcotics to keep them sleepy and compliant.

So there’s a huge, ascending spaceship surrounded by glowing pods, that also morphs into the electronic fortress of the planet’s ruling power, reflected in giant filmic images. There are gleaming metallic cradles for the doped workers to sleep in, prowling metal platforms, and – Teatr Biuro Podrozy’s trademark – immense stilt-walking robots who act as the workers’ nursemaids and, in one visually stunning dance-sequence, their entertainers. In the end, the show offers more technology than humanity; the subtlety of Lem’s thought about the replacement of “natural reality” with “manipulated perception” is mentioned, rather than fully dramatised, in a show that sometimes looks like a teenage video-game.

For one of the most exciting street-theatre companies in the world, though, Planet Lem represents a long stride forward into new thematic territory; theatre on stilts in every sense, as intelligent as it is bold, shiny and loud.

• The Blind until 27 August. Today 10:30pm. Planet Lem until 26 August. Today 9pm.