When you think of the Auckland's Writers Festival, you probably think of a relaxed day spent listening to authors talk about their work, where the only drama comes when that one person with an essay rather than a question gets their hands on the mic at the Q&A after.
Perhaps that relaxed air is what makes the festival's choice of theatrical production this year such an unexpected shock.
AWF's production of Blindness is the latest iteration to travel the world since London's Donmar Warehouse adapted Jose Saramago's 1992 book last year. The audiovisual production has been designed with heightened Covid alert levels in mind, with pairs of seats socially distanced in a rigid format that feels like it has a purpose, but it's one you won't discover until halfway through the show.
The play tells the story of a blindness pandemic that has hit an unnamed country. One man suddenly loses his sight while waiting in traffic, and soon the small number of people he has interacted with – namely through the eye doctor he goes to visit – go blind as well.
When an ambulance arrives to take the doctor to quarantine, his still seeing wife pretends to be blind and goes with him, and then the horror begins. To go into the specifics will spoil a great shock, but if you don't like dark spaces, this isn't for you: the structured lighting tubes above go black, and the Auckland Town Hall goes dark with the only light coming from cracks between the curtains, light that you will quickly seek out in order to place yourself among the void.
The scenes set in quarantine, even though you can't see anything, are probably the most terrifying moments in a theatrical production you'll ever experience. All we have left is our sound, and Juliet Stevenson – the sole narrator and voice actor in the piece – delivers a truly haunting, powerful performance that you can't escape from.
The sound design from Ben and Max Ringham in the UK and Andy Tsang in Auckland, alongside lighting from Jessica Hung Han Yun and Roydon Christensen, is immersive and all-consuming in a way I have never experienced before from any art form, let alone theatre. Surround sound is used to astounding effect to put you in the place of one of the blindness victims, with footsteps echoing behind you in the dark before Stevenson as the increasingly desperate doctor's wife whispers in your ear.
It is incredibly unsettling but completely effective. I have never experienced a work like this that makes you a part of the play, that draws your emotions out to such effect, and it makes for a truly unforgettable experience.
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There is little more to say without ruining the surprises that are in store. All you need to know is that this is a theatrical production like no other, and one that has to be experienced to truly understand its effect.
Where: Auckland Town Hall until May 16