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A CurtainUp LondonLondon Review
On Blindness
by Liza Zapol

And the first kiss. It's funny -- when you've had your lips around all sorts of appendages and your tongue in all sorts of orifices -- but when they touch for that first real kiss, it's like they've never touched before. And you know you're in for the long haul and the rough ride.
--- Shona
There has been a lot of buzz about the collaboration between the innovative Frantic Assembly, Graeae and Paines Plough theatre companies on this play by writer Glyn Cannon. There are no fewer than four directors for On Blindness, two of whom also were actors. I cannot imagine what the rehearsal hall was like, but the product is a confused interpretation of an interesting play.

Occasional screen projections display the text of the stage directions and of dialogue. There are sporadic chair dance interludes. Some scenes are sign interpreted by an actor or actors who may or may not be a part of the action as well. Scenes which takes place in separate settings are staged so that they completely overlap. These are just a few of the layers which are extremely confusing for the viewer.

Where does all of this clutter come from? The set is extremely simple: a white stage and a white screen behind it (for the projections of text and dialogue), and simple black chairs which are moved around to create the furniture. There are a few props, some blank canvases, and one painting (which I will address later). But this simple set does not necessarily clarify the action either, nor is the play intensely layered or abstruse.

We follow work buddies Shona (Jo McInnes) and Edward (Scott Graham) as they make separate discoveries about their identity and sexuality. Shona confronts her boyfriend Dan with an erotic portrait of her: if he doesn't like it, he doesn't like her. The shy and reserved Edward goes on a first date with Maria (Karina Jones), a blind and beautiful woman. Edward is confronted as he walks in her front door by the sight of Maria's deaf neighbour masturbating in her living room while she talks to him. Edward, confused and appalled, feels the teenager is taking advantage of Maria, and then feels he may be as well. She is forward and sexual, and he deflects her advances.

On Blindness addresses our inhibitions and misunderstandings which prevent connection. Miscommunication in any play can be frustrating to watch, but this seems magnified by the impression that no-one real or fictional on stage is communicating very well with each other or with the audience. This is despite the sign language translations, the projections, and other aids. In their favour, Steven Hoggett, as Shona's boyfriend Dan, and Karina Jones, as Maria, stand out as actors who are present with the text and the other actors.

Also frustrating is the reductive portrayal of women in this play. Women seem to act as catalysts for the sexual liberation of the men, themselves seemingly completely liberated. Both Shona and Maria are initially happy to be objectified, to be the used for male gratification, whether live or as a painting. Shona begins to question this slightly at the end of the play, as she confronts Gaetano, the portrait artist, about his selfish motivations for the painting. But her reflection doesn't last very long, before she returns to her ill-matching boyfriend.

This production is messy and disappointing. But I am left with questions to ponder about the play: Can we identify ourselves by who we attract and who we have sex with? Are these the main markers of identity in the modern age?

On Blindness
Written by Glynn Cannon
Directed by Vicky Featherstone, Scott Graham, Steven Hoggett and Jenny Sealey

With: Scott Graham, Jo McInnes, Karina Jones, David Sands, Mat Fraser, Steven Hoggett
Designer: Julian Crouch
Lighting Designer: Natasha Chivers
Sound: Nick Powell
Running time: One hour thirty minutes with no interval.
Box Office: 020 7478 0100
Booking to 13th March 2004
Reviewed by Liza Zapol based on 16th February 2004 performance at the Soho Theatre, Dean Street London W1 (Tube Station: Tottenham Court Road)
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