Review: Edinburgh's Festival Theatre returns from lockdown with theatrical oddity and message of hope

For the first time since lockdown and the relaxation of restrictions, one of Edinburgh's big three theatres has opened its doors to audiences.


Festival Theatre, Nicolson Street

Three Stars (out of Five)

The Festival Theatre returned yesterday, at 1pm, with the first of four daily performances of Blindness, by Simon Stephens, adapted from Jose Saramago's dystopian novel of the same name.

Described as 'a sound installation', think audio drama, this 70-minute immersive piece of post-lockdown theatre from London’s Donmar Warehouse features the voice of Juliet Stephenson as the Storyteller and is unlike any traditional night at the theatre. For a start, there are no actors are present, instead, audience members people the stage, seated two metres apart, masked, and wearing headphones through which the action unfolds around them – Stephenson frequently sneaks up behind you to whisper in your ear - courtesy of an intriguing soundscape designed by Ben and Max Ringham.

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The story, pedestrian as dystopic tales go, is, however, timely and occasionally unsettling: As the lights change at a major crossroads in a city in the heart of Europe a car grinds to a halt. Its driver can drive no more. Suddenly, without warning or cause, he has gone blind. Within hours it is clear that this is a blindness like no other. This blindness is infectious. Within days an epidemic of blindness has spread through the city. The government tries to quarantine the contagion by herding the newly blind people into an empty asylum. But their attempts are futile.

Walking onto the stage, transformed for the occasion into a black box theatre, ever-changing strip lights create the neon glow of the heart of a city, the sound of traffic and bustle of lives being lived enhance the illusion.

With headphones donned, Stephenson’s ethereal presence stalks the stage, often in pitch darkness, as she regales the tale. It’s at times unnerving but it’s a stunningly visual ‘coup de theatre’ that provides the unexpected climax of the show.

A theatrical oddity then, and one very much of these times, Blindness brings with it an uplifting and much needed message of hope as we emerge into the new normal and look towards a time when the word ‘pandemic’ might finally lose some of its current currency.

Runs until Saturday

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