Theatre’s capacity to predict the future

James Haddrell, artistic and executive director of Greenwich Theatre

It is often surprising how prescient the arts can be. Whether science fiction writers are predicting the kind of technological innovation that comes along decades later, or storytellers foretell societal changes, artists seem to get it right over and over again. In H G Wells’ The World Set Free the author not only predicted the invention of the atomic bomb – he named it and explained how it would work. Aldous Huxley predicted the invention and mass use of antidepressants in Brave New World. Sixteen years ago a now famous episode of The Simpsons predicted that Donald Trump would become president of the United States. Orwell’s 1984 contains countless predictions – from computer based speech transcription to facial recognition software – all of which are coming true today.

Now, with new coronavirus diagnoses being announced every day, a theatre show developed in Athens three years ago and first presented in London in 2017 seems to have predicted the appearance of a global epidemic powerful enough to shut down whole towns around the world.

The White Plague, produced by Ferodo Bridges and coming to Greenwich Theatre in March, tells the story of a plague of blindness that infects a western city, with the illness passed rapidly from person to person until the authorities are forced to quarantine those affected in a hastily designated and wholly unsuitable containment facility. Set almost entirely inside the walls of the quarantine facility, the show takes the audacious step of providing the entire audience with specially designed, illuminated blindfolds, subjecting them to the same white blindness as the characters in the story. They can hear the action around them but not see it.

“I wanted to create something that could be experienced without sight” the show’s director Alexander Raptotasios told me. “Something that would instead enhance our other senses and make us question how much we judge things with our eyes. Our main concern was to keep the narrative clear for the audience and to use the sensory-interactive parts of the show to help the audience be immersed and use their own sense memory to unlock emotions.”

The show starts outside of the theatre studio with the audience able to see, before blindness takes hold and they are led into the theatre.

“They have to rely on a stranger to guide them to their seat, to offer them a blanket, food and water, to keep them safe,” said Alexander. “The show was made to cultivate the feelings of solidarity and community in the audience, and by the end of it we want everyone to feel a bond that is caused both by the story but also by the physical practicalities of the play. I want people to question how we ‘see’ each other every day on the street, within institutions, families and as a country.”

“The show deals with complicated questions” he concludes. “We do not pretend to offer a lesson or an answer, but we want to create the right circumstances that will allow us and the audience to dissect our prejudices and to question the reasons we form factions and marginalise those different from us – and hopefully to find the things that unite us.”

The White Plague plays at Greenwich Theatre from 11-15 March 2020

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