Staged Installation, Reported Speech, and Syndemic Images in Blindness and Caretaker (2020)

Georgina Guy*


This essay attends in detail to the specific verbal techniques used in the construction of two installation-based performances presented in London in 2020: Blindness, a socially distanced sound installation, adapted by playwright Simon Stephens from José de Sousa Saramago’s 1995 novel Ensaio sobre a Cegueira, staged at the Donmar Warehouse; and Caretaker, a durational installation by Hester Chillingworth live-streamed from the Royal Court. Exploring reported action as an aural/oral dramaturgy specifically located at the intersection between curatorial and performance-based practices, this critical response takes up the modes of address employed in its case studies to situate these projects in relation to reciprocal modes of production that have, during this century, rendered the gallery a site for performance. Syndemic conditions invert this direction of travel. In order to navigate the reopening of theatres in the context of social distancing, the contemporary stage is reimagined as a space for installation. This transformation is performed via a set of practices that challenge the dominance of the ocular in contemporary culture and critique established modes of looking by foregrounding verbal over visual representation.

Keywords: Installational theatre, syndemic, pandemic, reported action, verbal description, ocularcentrism, digital performance

He dreamt, at once, that he was pretending to be blind.
“If I open my eyes, what will I see?”
“If I open my eyes, what will I see?”
“If I open my eyes, what will I see?”

Blindness. Adapted by Simon Stephens. Directed by Walter Meierjohann.
Performed by Juliet Stevenson. Donmar Warehouse, London. 3 to 22 August 2020

A character goes blind. In the audience, we do not see this event occur. Rather, we hear it told, as action reported, by a voice that does not belong to this figure but to a storyteller. It is the responsibility of this narrator to articulate the words of those to whom this happening has happened: “I’ve gone blind. I’ve gone blind.” After this blinding, the blinded character is taken home by someone else, who, we are told, steals his car and then, in turn, also goes blind. There is a proliferation of blindness. The first character moves, disoriented, through his apartment, sits down, falls asleep and dreams of “pretending to be blind.” We wonder, in the theatre, what this pretence might mean. We think of long-standing and contested casting practices wherein non-blind actors have pretended to be blind, for work, for money, for “art,” and about how the repeated question “If I open my eyes, what will I see?” challenges the limitations of our dominant and always partial visual impressions.

As the familiar attributes of the newly blind character’s home are rendered strange by an unaccustomed –now acoustic and touch-reliant—form of engagement, so theatre must be rethought in the, at first, unfamiliar and now persisting situation of pandemic. To re-open in the context of social distancing, theatres must first be reconfigured as installations. Blindness, an early example of this practice and the case study with which I begin this essay, is an hour-long, socially distanced sonic installation, with sound design by Ben and Max Ringham and text adapted by playwright Simon Stephens from José de Sousa Saramago’s 1995 novel Ensaio sobre a Cegueira. It was first staged at the Donmar Warehouse in London from 3 to 22 August 2020, repeating four times daily for audience members seated two metres apart on the stage, while simultaneously available in audio-described and captioned digital versions for those of us unable, for various reasons, to be in London and at the theatre at that time.

In this essay, the online version of the sound installation Blindness, with audio description by Julia Grundy for VocalEyes, is reviewed alongside another related example of practice in order to tease out the theatrical and political potential of performance techniques that foreground verbal over visual representation as they render the stage installational. The second case study also, then, takes the form of an installation, this time durational, that was live streamed from the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs at the Royal Court in London continuously from 8 May to 15 October 2020. Caretaker, by Hester Chillingworth, transmits a sustained image of the abandoned stage, set, as it was when the theatre closed earlier that year, for Vicky Featherstone’s production of Shoe Lady by E. V. Crowe. Intermittently, this view is punctuated not by performers but by texts written by Chillingworth as sonic messages in response to the contemporary context in which the theatre, and the world, now stands.[1]

These productions are conceived by their creative teams in a syndemic context that puts new demands on the form and familiarity of our cultural and social interactions. The term syndemic is preferred in my discussion of the staging of these installations since it emphasises the intersection of biological and socio-economic factors in shaping our experiences of pandemic (Mendenhall). The interplay of cultural representation and incidents of infection is particularly relevant to the arguments of this essay. While Caretaker works hard to reveal structural and institutional exclusions that predetermine certain risks as socially unequal, Blindness disturbingly assumes the eponymous position of being blind as metaphor for, what the play text terms, “epidemic.” Since the performance highlights how states sanction the uneven spread of infectious disease, syndemic is a more accurate descriptive term here. The play’s overt pathologization of blindness, however, limits the radical aural potential of its aesthetic strategies that otherwise seek to counter contemporary ocularcentrism. Rather than resolving longstanding flaws in our representational structures, these installations test emerging theatrical approaches and set out the work to be done.

The following arguments develop from my experience as a non-blind theatre scholar working at the intersection of practices of display and performance.[2] They proceed from ideas initiated in an invited essay for a recent special issue of French theatre journal Théâtre/Public on Faire scène: Arts de la scène et arts visuels (2021). For this initial piece, I surveyed a wider set of examples, and identified the need to reassess, from the perspective of syndemic, contested tropes—of the tabula rasa and acts of looking that construct perceptions of artistic and cultural “otherness”—that have been key to the formulation of historic relations between performance and the visual arts. Taking account of the two productions’ implication within dominant aesthetic systems and hierarchies of power and ability, this essay explores in depth how Blindness and Caretaker pursue verbal techniques already developing across theatre and the visual arts in the U.K. in the 2010s (Guy, “Reported Action”) to reframe installation as the pertinent mode for staging syndemic. These practices critique established forms of representation, which regulate creative and public interactions, by verbally destabilising visible points of reference, from the ubiquitous visual signal of the traffic light to images of suffering that, following Rizvana Bradley, speak only to audiences able to mark their distinction from those depicted. Revealing pervasive modes of institutional surveillance, Blindness and Caretaker establish emergent forms of syndemic inflected performance articulated through reported speech and staged as installation.

I want you to remember me as so many things.
I want you to remember me as so many things.
Take care.

Caretaker. By Hester Chillingworth. Royal Court Theatre, London. 8 May to 15 October 2020

In the Royal Court Theatre, the unoccupied auditorium is lit. Its recognisable leathered balcony curves tight around the black box of the stage. Two ropes run from the grid into brightly illuminated trap doors. A bulb burns brightly at the vanishing point of this image, as it is constructed on our screens (fig. 1). Sound equipment interjects from the top line of the frame. Most often this pictured sonic machinery is silent, though occasionally it speaks. What we are promised by the artist is “some space and a few words of encouragement” (Royal Court). With that in mind, I leave the scene running in my browser. It is the promise of theatre’s animating language that keeps me listening. A sound like a doorbell ringing, like someone wants to come in, and then a computer-generated voice speaks. “Welcome,” the voice says. “I thought maybe we could do something different today.” Every 20–30 minutes in similar formulations composed daily by Chillingworth. “Welcome. I want you to remember me as so many things.” Compositely, I consider, as installation and as theatre (Guy, “Les scenes contemporaines” 80).

Stage viewed from auditorium with ropes and tree branches suspended from the rig and two trap doors open on the stage floor. A light at the vanishing point.
Fig. 1. Caretaker, Hester Chillingworth, Royal Court Theatre, London, 2020. During Caretaker, the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs was set for Shoe Lady by E.V. Crowe, directed by Vicky Featherstone, designed by Chloe Lamford, which had been running when the theatre was forced to close. Photo: Robert Smael. Courtesy of Hester Chillingworth.

Theatre’s turn to the installational emerges not only in a syndemic moment but also in the context of increased attention to performance from theatre’s counterpoint, the art museum (Guy, “Les scenes contemporaines” 81). In the last two decades, gallery programmes have selectively included repertoires of live work, staging performances that, like their theatrical parallels, often emphasise verbal narration (Guy, “Reported Action” 340). What is shared across these spaces are not only visual systems but scenes and actions that are aural and text-based (Guy, “Les scenes contemporaines” 81). In a context wherein emergency governmental controls add further restrictions to existing “behavioural codes” that shape our artistic encounters, theatrical installations such as Blindness and Caretaker benefit from the ways in which liveness has spread in recent years to “encompass both human and non-human elements” (Wood 227). Departing from the “real-time presence of bodies,” Tate’s Senior Curator of International Art (Performance) Catherine Wood precis, the “metaphorical texture” of performance now “represents a provisional state of things.”

At the intersection of display and performance exists a persisting correlation between the theatrical misconception of the empty stage and the museological illusion of the modernist white cube—both fantasies that conceal the historical and cultural specificity of cultural institutions—that seems particularly relevant given the emergency closure of theatre venues in 2020 (Guy, “Les scenes contemporaines” 77). For some time, images of Empty Stages, such as Hugo Glendinning and Tim Etchells’s beautiful photographic series (2003–present), have spoken subtly of theatrical potential and participatory modes that combine acts of looking and doing (Guy 15). If such associative images present a “photographic space that’s like the experience of being in a live performance” (Glendinning qtd. in Giannachi n. pag.), then reconfiguring the stage as installation forges theatrical encounters akin to scenes in a gallery. In syndemic, the fallacy of the tabula rasa resonates beyond any mirage of neutrality to vitalities of sanitation and human frailty. Theatrical installations that foreground aural/oral representation thus offer renewed opportunities to challenge political and aesthetic assumptions of emptiness.

As visual and sonic synergies that emphasise the participation of each entrant, ideas of installation are transportable to the theatre. “Installation” has spread incrementally, recalls participatory art theorist Claire Bishop, from its use in the 1960s to “describe the way in which an exhibition was arranged” to become a “catch-all description that draws attention to its staging” (n. pag.; my emphasis). From its earliest iteration, “installation” highlights the verbal representation of visual and spatial forms. It is concerned with conveying exhibition in words that accentuate theatricality. In Blindness and Caretaker, it is reported speech and action that constitutes each installation; events are not enacted physically for the audience but rather narrated in words. The seeming “neutrality” of the term “installation” is also part of its appeal, Bishop continues, along with its recognition of “space as a work in itself.” When the space of installation (that is itself the work of art) shifts to be a physical theatre venue, we encounter new configurations of what the stage is and what it might be.

In a syndemic context, the site specificity associated with installation art expands beyond the theatre as practitioners use installational techniques to foreground not presence but vacancy. If, as Bishop states, installation art induces a “critical vigilance towards the environments in which we find ourselves,” then it offers an apposite form for exploring how to make theatre in syndemic conditions (n. pag.). It is important to reiterate here that my engagement with both Blindness and Caretaker is digital. Though Bishop reminds us that installation art is often “particularly photogenic,” my remote listening to Blindness, and the reframing of the Royal Court theatre as two-dimensional image in Caretaker, might at first seem at odds with installation as a practice that emphasises physical presence (n. pag.). To maintain this distinction, however, is to preserve hierarchies of experience that prioritise certain types of encounter. At stake rather is the possibility that different sorts of theatrical occupation might, as Chillingworth suggests, “allow for a particularly wide, accessible, inclusive watching [or listening] experience, where the emptiness can be filled by whatever we bring to it” (n. pag.) 

VocalEyes Audio Describer Julia Grundy:        The lights glow soft red, then orange.
Juliet Stevenson as Narrator/Doctor’s Wife:                                      If you can see, look.
If you can look, observe.

Blindness. Adapted by Simon Stephens. Directed by Walter Meierjohann.
Performed by Juliet Stevenson. Donmar Warehouse, London. 3 to 22 August 2020

As Blindness constructs its visual scenes through spoken commentary, so the introduction to the installation produced by audio description specialists VocalEyes—and available as a separate audio file on their website—sets out the theatre aurally. Inside the auditorium at the Donmar Warehouse (fig. 2), as Grundy establishes in this spoken foreword:

the usual seating has been removed and new chairs are placed throughout the space. The chairs are utilitarian, the type often found stacked and gathering dust in village halls or assembly rooms, with shaped backs and seats of pale honey coloured plywood within a steel frame. The chairs are arranged in doubles, with two metres between each pair.


There is pleasing congruence here between the details of this audio introduction and the narrative techniques that construct the performance for which it sets the scene. Despite being a sonic installation, many of the opening cues that initiate the production are visual. “As you arrive in the auditorium,” Grundy explains—inviting those of us listening at distance to imagine we are in the theatre, just as the script for Blindness provokes us to conceive our attendance at its scenes—a “coloured light” will show you where to sit (VocalEyes).

Audience wearing headphones seated on black stage in pairs amongst low strip lights.
Fig. 2. Blindness at the Donmar Warehouse. Photo: Helen Maybanks

Despite—or perhaps because of—its emphasis on action reported in speech, Blindness begins by giving spoken attention to the visual. The narrative commences from an ocular instruction, painted on black peeling walls for those able to observe this command in the reconfigured theatre and then articulated in speech for that audience, as well as those listening remotely: “IF YOU CAN SEE, LOOK; IF YOU CAN LOOK, OBSERVE.” This directive marks distinctions between the three optical activities it invokes, seeing, looking and observing, as concerned respectively with faculties of sight, use of those capacities for directed visual inspection, and more heedful modes of attendance. An observation is, of course, also a verbal remark. This inscribed and then articulated declaration is followed in the script by the evocation of a ubiquitous visual sign: “The amber light came on. Two of the cars ahead accelerated before the light appeared” (Blindness). Here, this visible cue to regulated movement stands for the visual predominance of contemporary cultural codes.

The play text for Blindness describes not only visual scenes but also words and sounds. The first noises to be articulated in the play are shouts, horns and the expressions of a character driving a car that has stalled in front of a green traffic light. The narrator reports:

To judge by the movements of his mouth he appeared to be repeating some words, not one word but three as was proved to be the case when somebody finally decided to open the [car] door. “I’ve gone blind. I’ve gone blind.” Who would have believed it? Seen at a glance, the man’s eyes seemed healthy. The iris looked bright, luminous. The sclera white, as compact as porcelain. The eyes wide open.


Visual clues fail. The narrated gestures that accompany the reported words—flailing arms, the appearance of enunciation, how the eyes “look”—cannot convey what is taking place. The screen, in this case a window, must be removed so that the sound can reach the characters and be conveyed to those of us listening at a distance. Vision is not the reliable sense here, either for the characters within Blindness or for the acoustically-engaged audience. Even so, the behavioural codes for signalling distress in the theatre remain visual. “On the floor beneath one chair in each pair is an electric torch,” Grundy explains in the audio introduction, to gain the “attention of members of the front of house staff in case of difficulties” (VocalEyes). In keeping with the complex reporting of visual information through oral communication in Blindness, these safety instructions are relayed verbally.

The narrative of the play takes us next to a doctor’s surgery where the character’s eyes are examined, and the inaccuracy of visual perceptions further expounded. The storyteller delivers the doctor’s assessment that, on visible inspection, “your eyes are perfect.” When the doctor in turn goes blind, Juliet Stevenson asks, performing the voice of the doctor’s wife that is also the voice of the narrator: “Who ever heard of an epidemic of blindness?” It is tempting to heed this disbelief as a challenge to the pathologizing of blindness inherent to this designation. Despite long and troubling histories of narrative and philosophical enquiry that employ blindness metaphorically (Kleege 3), within the construct of the play this summation cannot be trusted because it is previously “unheard.” The narrator’s description of the doctor’s blindness enacts the shift from visual to aural engagement central to the sonic installation. Assuming himself unwatched, the doctor “turned to where he knew a mirror was. He stretched out his hands to touch the glass. He heard his wife enter.” The narrated relationship to the mirror is no longer one of visual recognition but felt location. This first part of the account resonates with Georgina Kleege’s critique, articulated in her writing on blindness and the “visual” arts, of the too easy correlation between “the sighted man’s eyes and the blind man’s hands” (21). However, the doctor’s experience is multisensory; he is alerted to the narrator’s presence not via her reflected image but aurally. 

What difference does it make? I’ll go blind one of these days.
Do you honestly think I won’t? It could happen any minute.
There’s no way I’m going to leave you. I’m staying here, to help you and the others.
Well of course they’ll be others. You don’t think we’ll be here on our own, do you?

Blindness. Adapted by Simon Stephens. Directed by Walter Meierjohann.
Performed by Juliet Stevenson. Donmar Warehouse, London. 3 to 22 August 2020

From the initial scenes of Blindness, the storyteller comes to refer to the character at the traffic lights as “the first blind man.” The position from which Stevenson articulates the narrative—that is, from the perspective of the doctor’s wife who retains her sight—raises key questions about the ways in which acts of looking construct perceptions of “otherness.” In her essay, “And What Are You Looking At? Formulas for Making the Invisible Visible” (2008), curator and theorist Elvira Dyangani Ose reminds us that identities are “constituted within a system of representation” wherein the observed “will never be regarded as adequate—i.e., identical to the subject who is in a position to regard” (96). In Blindness, the question of who holds the “position to regard” is played out in literal terms; only the storyteller can see, and every event is communicated from her visual perspective. As the play progresses, the blindness of “the first blind man” ceases to be a unique distinguishing characteristic. The narrator is alone in her sightedness and optical engagement with traumatic scenes.

We hear reported that the characters experiencing blindness are quarantined in a disused asylum, and the storyteller accompanies her husband to this site by pretending to be blind. Looking singularly at the conditions of filth and violence, the narrator perpetuates ableist assumptions that blindness might offer some protection from situations of suffering. Her entreaty that her blind partner can’t expect her to “carry on looking at these miseries” recalls Kleege’s subtle unpacking of the misconception that “true horror can only be evinced through the eyes” (21). Despite her husband’s pleas that she leaves, the narrator insists on staying to “help you and the others.” Since she encounters the situation of the play visually, the storyteller is unlike the “other” characters in Blindness, and indeed the audience, for whom the performance is sonic. The relative modes of experience are different, and the installation reveals how the “glance of one individual at another, of one skin at another, of one face at another, of one gender and another, transforms the beholder into an ‘other’” (Dyangani Ose 99). The characters that are blind are “other” to the narrator who sees, and she is “other” to them.

Speaking on their behalf, the storyteller repeatedly gives voice to a visual sensation that is shared by those characters whose ocular perceptions are altered: “I see everything white.” Within the installation, blindness manifests as “whiteness” and the politics of associating the limits of visual perception with what the narrative calls a “white sickness” cannot go unheard. In “Picturing Catastrophe: The Visual Politics of Racial Reckoning” (2021), media scholar Rizvana Bradley interrogates how pervasive discriminations are sustained by “racialized visuality.” It is dangerous to presume, Bradley warns, that “looking has been left untouched by and innocent of the ubiquity and force of racial violence” (n. pag.). How we see and produce images is constituted according to brutal colonial histories. In Blindness, the narrator cannot continue to ignore the harmful and harrowing conditions in the asylum: “You can’t see what people have done, what they’re doing now. Something has to be done about this mess. I can’t go on pretending that I can’t see. I have to tell people.” The impetus here is towards admission and articulation of cruelties previously overlooked.

The final announcement of Caretaker foregrounds how violent images circulate in speech. “You taught me George Floyd. You taught me breath. You taught me truth twisters. You taught me second spike. You taught me Barnard Castle. You taught me Breonna Taylor.” Chillingworth’s words name acts of racism and dereliction, verbally recalling accounts and images that circulated in the aftermath of these particular instances of institutional failure.[3] “Picturing Catastrophe” from “more than a year into the pandemic”—and at a similar temporal distance from the performance installations addressed in this essay—Bradley recounts how Joe Biden, now U.S. President, implores his listeners to confront structural racism: “we have to look at it as we did for those 9 minutes and 29 seconds. We have to listen. ‘I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.’ Those were George Floyd’s last words.” Calling out this incitement to observe and listen, Bradley situates Biden’s narrativization as “fulfillment of a murderous script which is incapable of mourning the life it steals” (n. pag.). Looking at pictures of multiracial solidarity alongside private images of black grief, we must face the prospect, Bradley cautions, that, by constructing black people as “objects of racial empathy,” these scenes are “merely ciphers for those subjects who immediately recognize themselves as their audience.”

In Blindness, it is only the narrator who can look, precisely because she remains distinct from those she represents, and it is her voice and perceptions alone that we hear. Her distress is different and must not assimilate the experiences of those she seeks to support. As she narrates, she is constantly concerned that the guards—who are among the last to go blind—are watching: “I can’t let those guards see that I can see.” The asylum is under surveillance and in the play too, as well as under the “modern aesthetic regime, every visualization becomes a site of enclosure” (Bradley n. pag.). Even so, it is spoken regulations that set out the terms of confinement. The only other voice we hear in the performance interjects ministerial announcements, heard by the characters on the radio or via loudspeakers within the bounds of the asylum. The broadcasts resonate with our lived experiences of negligence: “Attention: the government regrets having been forced to exercise with all urgency what it considers to be its rightful duty to protect the population.” “We are relying on the public spirit.” “Internees cannot count on any outside intervention.” 

I see you. Do you see me?
I see you. Do you see me?
Take care.

Caretaker. By Hester Chillingworth. Royal Court Theatre, London. 8 May to 15 October 2020

Spoken attention to sight is also significant in Chillingworth’s Caretaker. Intermittently, the automated voice intervenes but, unlike in pre-pandemic performances that centred on reported action, there are no performers on stage either in Caretaker or in Blindness on whom to focus our visual attentions. The monologues are recorded, and we do not see the bodies that shape these sounds. For Chillingworth, this absence is indicative of a broader commitment to examining how “our viewing process[es] change when there are no visible bodies to project onto” (n. pag.). The closed theatres of lockdown offer a testing ground for this premise. On hearing the statement “I see you” (Caretaker), it is not clear precisely who or what has us as audience in their sights. We hope it may be Chillingworth, whose interventionist practice promises care. Yet, as we encounter governmental systems of visual surveillance in Blindness, we are reminded, with theatre scholar Alan Read, that contemporary arts organisations seek modes “not just for displaying views of the world (by artists), but ensuring the institution itself is an almighty surveillance apparatus” (143). In the context of online participation, we wonder who it is that is watching us as the disembodied institution reports to look back, not silently but through verbal assertions of its gaze.

Caretaker foregrounds the “haunted” nature of the theatre as a venue constructed by its histories of production and reception. Situating the installation as a “professional haunting” dominated by the spectre of the set for a previous show, Chillingworth claims to be startled that their formally experimental work now constitutes the longest running piece at the well-known Royal Court theatre (Chillingworth). Installation also has a complex relationship to established practices, emerging first as a subversive mode but becoming the “epicentre of institutional activity” and “institutionally approved artform par excellence” (Bishop). This cultural prominence allows the theatre to turn to installation in a moment of crisis. Formal shifts, and institutional accommodations and exclusions, shape disciplinary politics. In “I Hate Visual Culture” (2017), Maxime Boidy, Julie Patarin-Jossec, and Susan Hansen recount this provocative statement made by critic Rosalind Krauss as an articulation of anti-interdisciplinarity. Following essayist Jonathan Crary, they trace the limits that come with restricting critical “frameworks to the visible while neglecting the other aesthetical or cultural factors” (n. pag.). To avoid hegemonic interpretations “imposed by the visible” we must embrace instead the “constituent permeability” of our sensory engagements (Boidy et al.).

While foregrounding aural performance, Blindness presents a dramaturgical structure that seeks to restore the visual. Returning home, “the first blind man” searches for the “sofa where he and his fiancé watched television,” rehearsing ingrained habits of a primarily visual existence. Throughout, the aural content of the installation is accompanied by virtual effects designed, as Grundy describes, to “enhance the story as it unfolds” by signalling a particular location or providing emphasis to what is said via “brief spasms of brightness [that] are triggered by a word or descriptive phrase” (VocalEyes). At the end of the play, the characters regain their optical faculties, and there is a worrying sense in the piece, as in our lived experience now, of desire for return to a pre-pandemic state. Fictional and actual, syndemics make evident not only embodied social connections but also persisting inequalities that unevenly distribute vulnerability (Butler). How blindness is pathologized throughout the play betrays the sonic experimentation of its production and undermines calls in the script to “find out how we might live” that might be more resonantly heard and more radically attuned to the potential of “blindness arts” (Thompson and Warne 2018).

In its resolution, then, Blindness risks recapitulating the regimes of visuality it seeks to contest. On escape from quarantine, the narrator initially remains the only non-blind character. She seeks food and shelter, telling us that there is no water or electricity, and that she “didn’t know if there was going to be a future. We needed to decide how we were going to live.” The need for new forms of liveliness resonates with Judith Butler’s assertion that the key “questions—how to live, how to face mortality and how best to make sense of the world—are ones that drive the humanities still and again” (n. pag.). It is prudent, Butler observes, that we turn to “writing and visual art, history and theory to make sense of [our] pandemic world, to reflect upon the question: When the world as we know it falls apart, what then?” In Blindness, the cultural relief longed for by the storyteller is sonic: “You have a radio! We’ll be able to listen to the news! And a little music!” The power of performance exists in its recurrent experimentation with adjacent practices, its transformatory capacity to move beyond its established forms so as to bring us proximity to and perspective on our worldly encounters. Returning to theatrical models playing out in the gallery, Wood reminds us too that “performance registers the shifting state of contemporary reality—moving with it, or reshaping relations to change its course—to make representations of what it means now to live” (227). In a sustained climate of crisis, the promise of lively reconstruction is vital.

If the significance of creative encounters is attached to the project of imagining alternative presents and futures, then it is important to acknowledge these mechanisms as flawed. In Caretaker, the voiceover implores us, in the affecting final moments of the installation, to “take more than one look at things.” Iteration is necessary, perhaps, to see past the biases that direct and inflect our attentions. Caretaker draws attention to the urgent need to ask again how the ways in which the human body is “labelled and classified in order to distribute power unevenly [can] be represented and played with in performance without risking reinscribing those very same problems” (Chillingworth). Dominating aesthetic categories are exclusive. In “Picturing Catastrophe,” Bradley attests that if we are to move to radical reimaginings, we must nurture an attentional mode that “undercuts every enterprise of world picturing” and “reinvent what it means to see” (n. pag.). In Blindness, the assertion resounds, “I can’t see,” sometimes uttered by blind characters and, other times, feigned by the narrator but always a vocal declaration of the perceptive limits of sight. At the end of the installation, the “whiteness of the white sickness” fades and the characters follow “the blind man” into a sight we hope is not a repossession but a “radically divergent practice of seeing” (Bradley). 

The way I speak about things has changed.
I spoke like this.
Then I spoke like this.
And now I speak like this.

Caretaker. By Hester Chillingworth. Royal Court Theatre, London. 8 May to 15 October 2020

In dialogue with playwright Simon Stephens, production consultant and critical disabilities studies scholar, Hannah Thompson, discusses the ways in which “being blind just makes you find other ways of doing things” (n. pag.). Reframing expressions of “impairment” that too often imply insufficiency, Thompson’s theory of “blindness gain” asserts that blind experiences have wider cultural value, offering alternative ways of living and innovative aesthetic forms. Installations using reported action to elaborate scenes, characters, and events in words de-centre sight as the primary mode of engagement so that audience members—blind and non-blind, in the theatre and online—engage with images aurally. Using sound, and particularly speech, to structure our encounters, Blindness takes up the dramatic potential of techniques long established in practices of audio description (designed to give visual information in verbal forms, mainly but not always for blind visitors) and sound installation. If sound art is a self-referential practice, wherein the sonic constitutes both the form and content of a work, then Blindness is similarly a metatheatrical aural narrative that explores alternative ways of encountering the world, of the play, and culturally and politically lived.

In his theory of sound art, curator and critic Morten Søndergaard marks out aural attention as a means by which to reorient our perceptions. Drawing on Žižek’s definition of events as that which shift our conventional frameworks of encounter, Søndergaard posits that, “curating sound art is a reframing process” (305). On stage, the communicative force of an acoustically constructed installation offers a means to reconfigure how we encounter theatre in syndemic conditions—both practically and affectively—and a form in which to express global crisis. On return to the theatre, Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse, Michael Longhurst, stated that, rather than maintaining a “deserted monument to when we closed,” Blindness offered an “apposite form” in which to explore “how the restrictions of this moment could in fact become an expressive tool for story-telling” (n. pag.). Listening to a scene described, or an action taking place, prioritises the imagination of the audience, who are responsible for constructing the detail of what is heard, assembling aural clues, about who speaks, is spoken to, or about, into coherent (or contested) mental concepts.

Some components of the theatrical scene are narrated vividly, such as the storyteller’s instructions on entering the asylum: “There are six steps in all. Now keep to the right. Hold on to the wall.” Similarly, the narrator often voices both parts of a dialogue, as when she reports the exchange between herself and her husband, wherein he tells her “I can’t see,” and she asks, “What are we going to do?” As the installation progresses, however, the script requires that we not only infer sights unseen but also the utterances of characters not reported by the storyteller. Sometimes, this effect places us firmly within the aural reality of the events described; for example, when we hear only one side of telephone conversations. Incrementally, though, the tunnel vision of the narrator’s account fixates on her own expressions: “Don’t be silly, you can’t. Who will you tell? The soldiers? Do you think they’ll care?” We deduce that the doctor wants to reveal that his wife, the storyteller, is not blind to protect her from the unsanitary conditions of quarantine. The character is talking but we hear only the direct speech of the storyteller. The doctor’s words are not included in the narrator’s chronicle of events. Rather, we must imaginatively reconstruct these exclusions.

The amplified emphasis on the perspective of the sighted narrator in Blindness underlines the priority given to optical attention and non-blind experience, while stressing the unreliability both of visual perception and of reported accounts. In her writing on Sonic Possible Worlds (2014), art theorist Salomé Voegelin reminds us that sound does not hold a “superior ethical position or reveal a promised land” (3). Modes of engagement premised on listening will not immediately repair systems—social, legal and representational—and relationships long broken, nor do they exist outside discriminatory structures. Rather, aural dramaturgies that centre reported action might enable us to perceive hidden mechanisms of the visual and challenge its “certain position, not to show a better place but to reveal what the world is made of, to question its singular actuality and to hear other possibilities that are probable too, but which, for reasons of ideology, power and coincidence do not take equal part in the production of knowledge, reality, value, and truth” (Voegelin 3).

I will remember you as thinking before you speak. Sometimes for absolutely ages.
I will remember silences with you and loud tunes with you.
I will remember that when you are sad, it is like someone turning off music.
And that when you are happy, it is like everything has its own soundtrack.

Caretaker. By Hester Chillingworth. Royal Court Theatre, London. 8 May to 15 October 2020

In its final moments, Blindness asks that we distrust language too. “Words deceive. They take us by surprise,” the storyteller says in response to three words she hears, overhears, hears too much in the instant of the play’s conclusion: “Don’t lose yourself.” Cleansing in the rain alongside two other characters—the “girl with dark glasses” and the fiancé of the “first blind man”—the storyteller recounts being brought to tears because of this “verb in the instructive, another verb, a personal pronoun. We feel them come completely alive. They cut right through us.” Able to penetrate not only visual forms of engagement and syndemic situations of crisis, sonic installations also pierce our theatrical encounters by means of these three words against suspension of disbelief. “Don’t lose yourself” in the words, in the sounds, in this fictitious “epidemic.” Instead, we must return our attention questioningly to the syndemic that persists outside the theatre and the way in which it is constructed for us through fraught representational apparatus. The visual revelation of the play’s conclusion enacts this call. Audio Description: “The large dock door slowly swings open onto the outside world high in the city. Natural light floods in” (VocalEyes n. pag.).

The last announcement of Caretaker returns to spoken and sonic acts of remembrance that echo Butler’s sensitive attention to the ways in which, in the enduring situation of syndemic, “losses are for the most part borne in private” (n.pag.) The interconnected space of the internet, wherein I encountered both of the installations addressed in this essay, has, Butler writes, “more fully claimed its place as the new public sphere, but it can never fully substitute for the gatherings, both private and public, that allow losses to be fathomed and lived through with others.” Online, grieving and grievances cannot “assuage the cry that wants the world to bear witness to the loss” (Butler). We want our cries to be observed. The last monologue of Blindness gestures also to happenings that remain unspoken: “I could talk about . . . the art galleries and the theatres and the cinemas and the football stadia and the early shapes of public conversations.” As we seek new ways to assemble and converse, aural installations that centre reported action offer questioning beginnings that agitate syndemic conditions, existent and representational, to stage how we might live.

Author’s Note

This essay builds on some early responses to Blindness and Caretaker tested in an article translated as “Les scènes contemporaines de l’exposition de la performance: Théâtralité, comparaison, auralité” for Théâtre/Public no. 239, Faire scène: Arts de la scène et arts visuels.


[1] All quotations from Blindness and Caretaker included and analysed in this essay are transcribed from my online listening experiences, rather than cited from visual readings of published versions (which are, to my knowledge, not available). Additionally, Hester Chillingworth was generous in sharing with me the written text for the final moments of Caretaker.

[2] In this essay, I follow critical disabilities studies scholars Hannah Thompson and Vanessa Warne in taking the term “blindness” to signal a range of “ways of (not) seeing” and employing “non-blind” to reference lived experiences that are primarily visual (2018).

[3]During the first period of national lockdown in the U.K. in 2020, Dominic Cummings, then Chief of Staff to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, drove to Barnard Castle near Durham in northern England, claiming that he undertook the journey to check his eyesight.


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*Georgina Guy is Senior Lecturer in Theatre and Performance at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her book Theatre, Exhibition, and Curation: Displayed & Performed (2016) was shortlisted for the UK Theatre and Performance Research Association (TaPRA) Early Career Research Prize and formed the basis for a research-led evening course at Tate Modern, London exploring how performance is curated and collected by art museums. This essay is part of a larger project on reported action in contemporary performance contexts and contributes to a developing theory of (post)-pandemic theatre that reconceives the stage as installation.

Copyright © 2021 Georgina Guy
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