The White Plague, presented by theatre company Ferodo Bridges’, is a lovely adaptation of a wonderful story but fails in delivery to live up to its promise.
The selling piece of this show seems to be the immersive experience and this just doesn’t really work.
The performance begins with the audience milling around a reception room. We’ve been given a little preparatory talk before we entered warning us that we’ll be handed goggles that whiteout our vision and we’re expected to wear them for most of the show. All will become clear soon. The five actors, who have been blending in, walking between us, move to the stage. Facing out they recount the beginning of the epidemic of blindness that is sweeping the nation in 1991. The performances from the whole company are strong. They are excellent storytellers – a good thing as almost the entire piece revolves around them telling the story from the third perspective line-by-line.
At the end of this prologue, we don our white specks. For the sake of spoilers I shall leave the plot there. Suffice to say it is an excellent story. It’s a staged re-telling of the book Blindness by José Saramago, which has gained modern classic status for good reason. If you haven’t read the book you will surely enjoy the play for at least the imaginative tale woven in reaction to Saramago’s words. However, as strong as the source material is this is where the performance lacks. We are blinded for almost the entire time. It’s supposed to make us feel immersed in the world of the blind, however sitting comfortably in our chairs, fairly sure no one is going to hit us, push us or even make us stand up and move removes the fear thus rendering it fairly pointless. I spent far more time adjusting my uncomfortable mask then feeling frightened for my safety. The sound effects are used excellently and are clever given the limitations of the space, but they are only on a couple of occasions shocking. The shock factor seems important to get the audience into a heightened state of awareness needed to facilitate blind theater. It seemed the company were scared to push the boundaries of the immersive experience – I can see why – it’s a minefield dealing with a new audience every night and their limits. But it has to be done, or they should do away with the goggles.
Saramago’s writing in the book is very stylised and fairly removed. When translated directly into the play what it fails to account for is once you’ve lost the hours and hours of reading time Saramago has to create a world, compared to this company’s two-hour running time, and that the audience is now blind we lose so much of what allows us to build pathos for characters. The words were so descriptive that it felt very much like a passive viewing (hearing) experience. I was being told a story but I didn’t feel the story. I didn’t care very much about the people it was happening to. I didn’t really believe it was happening to them. The multi-rolling of the actors was nice, but because as the beginning we had seen them all we always knew who was talking. Often characters would change but voices stayed exactly the same, which was just confusing. I think it would have been infinitely more powerful if we had never seen the actors faces so at least our brains could be filling in the visual gaps, given them something to engage within the story.
The whole audience and the actors are all wearing descriptive stickers; “The Good Samaritan,” “The Woman With the Red Lipstick,” “The Man in the Leather Jacket.” They make good use of what might otherwise be gimmicky – especially in the first part. The only suggestion I would have made is that it becomes jarring once everyone was blind. With all the stickers being visual queues, perhaps I would have chosen scent or accent based ones? It might have reinforced the idea a little more.
To bring this to some conclusion I think the actors are all terrifically talented. I loved so many ideas in the piece – the first waiting room, the delivery of the first part. I thought the sound effects were imaginative and evocative. The story itself is a fantastic one. However, the selling piece of this show seems to be the immersive experience and this just doesn’t really work. At £15 a ticket the company need to rework quite a few elements before it can be endorsed.