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City of the Blind is ethical research and sensory experience in one

An old man strolls into the infirmary with a transistor radio. 'Where did you go blind?' the blind people already present ask the newcomer. 'In a museum,' he replies. A moving conversation then unfolds about what was the last painting he saw, and the possibilities are projected onto the wafer-thin canvas that separates the audience from the sick room. These condemned to each other try to imagine paintings they once saw and search for a common memory, a shared image. Through this scene, we come close to the experience and loneliness of being blind. Even more than watching stumbling and groping people wearing increasingly stained clothes, here we gain insight into what they have lost.

For the first time City of the Blind, the famous 1995 book by Portuguese Nobel laureate Jose Saramago, on stage. Saramago is known for his pessimistic worldview. With City of the Blind he wrote his first allegorical novel. One day, in a city, a number of people inexplicably go blind. As soon as possible, the government places the infected in solitary confinement in an old madhouse. The conditions of this quarantine quickly deteriorate.

Disappearing frameworks

The story is an examination of what happens when cadres fall away and authority fails. Saramago was convinced that this world is not going to work out and saw things looking bleak with the likes of Israel and Palestine, boat people and powerful multinationals. In a readable interview with the Belgian Knack from 2006, four years before his death, he said "...If I had to come up with an epitaph for myself, I would say: here rests José Saramago, an indignant man"

Theatre Utrecht, the city of Utrecht's new urban company that rose last year from the smouldering financial remains of The Utrecht Games, is not known for its thigh-slappers. After Crave and 4.48 Psychosis (Sarah Kane), Phaedra (Hugo Claus), and City of the Blind stands later this year A kind of Hades by Norwegian Lars Norén on the programme. Heavy fare choice by artistic director Thibaud Delpeut to show and examine the dark caverns of the human mind.

Pressure cooker

Director Thibaud Delpeut faithfully follows the broad outlines of the book and it shows guts that he dares to limit himself to a pressure cooker of just an hour and a half. Delpeut, in collaboration with the MapLab, aims to visualise the world of experience of the unborn blind. The beautiful opening sequence succeeds wonderfully in this, yet the sound and visual décor present does not work as an emotion-enhancer, as it did earlier in Delpeut's Antigone-Kreon-Oidipous. The erge dat people can do to each other under certain circumstances is no surprise. What is remarkable is how quickly a helpful man turns into a thief. That evil can be exchanged for good like changing t-shirts is beautifully nonchalantly portrayed by Hein van der Heijden.

Furthermore, Wendell Jaspers impresses as the wife of the ophthalmologist, the only one in the asylum who can see. She sees the emerging decay, violence and filth of the other internees and reports on it almost like an affected correspondent from a disaster site. Do you interview a victim about hunger or feed him? The splitting of her character into an acting and a narrating actress gives dynamism and layering to the performance. The interaction between the characters in the infirmary remains too much in the background. The seemingly simple and bright set gets in the way of contact with the audience. The drama remains too often on stage, despite the narrator in front of the curtain (Karina Smulders) who keeps permanently looking at us/in the camera.

The pace is partly the strength of this performance, but it does not do full justice to the final section. When the quarantine suspense ends and the blind go wandering through a dishevelled and disrupted city where supermarkets are looted, corpses lie rotting in the streets and the law of the jungle rules the roost, the unwinding of the plot feels, unfortunately, too much like the unwinding of the plot. The director says interested in the figurative path the characters take to arrive at a different view of each other. To make this palpable, more time should really be taken. Give us time to watch.

 

City of the Blind can still be seen at the Spring Festival, Oerol festival, Over het Ij festival and Theatre Festival Boulevard consecutively until 16 August.

Based on the book by: José Saramago
Translation: Harrie Lemmens
Adaptation: Stijn Devillé
Direction and music: Thibaud Delpeut
Actors: Claire Bender, Eline ten Camp, Bram Gerrits, Sam Ghilane, Jacob de Groot, Hein van der Heijden, Wendell Jaspers, Redbad Klynstra, Jesse Mensah and Karina Smulders 

Scenography: Roel van Berckelaer
Video design: Arjen Klerkx
Dramaturgy: Joris van der Meer
Costumes: Wojciech Dziedzic
Lighting design: Casper Leemhuis
Sound design: Mark IJzerman
Sound system designer: Pim van den Heuvel

Hannah Roelofs

Dramaturg, speech coach and student English teacher.View Author posts

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