Gate Theatre, London W11
Opened 22 February, 2002

Over the last few years, the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill has taken to programming more one-act plays. It can be tempting, and is sometimes justified, to treat these more lightly, almost as makeweights between the full-length offerings. The current presentation, The Country Of The Blind, is a modest fifty-minute miniature, staged with the venue's customary flair; its apparent sedateness is due more to the events it portrays than to triviality of material.

Adapted from H.G. Wells's short story by Simon Bent and director Charlotte Gwinner, it tells of a Colombian mountain guide who falls into a valley inhabited by a community all of whose members have for generations been sightless; not only have they no conception of vision, but they have formulated their own cosmology in which angels, not birds, sing to them from the trees, and they work to heat themselves up during the cold (night) and sleep during the more comfortable warm (day). Newcomer Nunez's attempts to explain "reality", and even to set himself up as ruler, are treated by them sometimes as amusing fantasies but more often as dangerous delusions emanating from the strange organs above his nose.

Lara Furniss's design clads the entire Gate space in moss and forest duff, with an oval central playing area representing what the blind community define as "the world". In a touch of Shafferian "black comedy", the English mountaineering party from which Nunez falls have a couple of brief scenes played in complete darkness, in which they ironically extol the breathtaking views; the action in the valley is seldom more than half-lit.

Gwinner and her company play the succession of brief scenes at a leisurely pace resulting from a thoughtful portrayal of the manner and speed at which such a community would move, but which can make the piece seem sluggish and bitty. Nevertheless, the point comes across that Wells's story is not simply a clever reversal of the old canard about the one-eyed man, but is in fact about two mutually incomprehensible systems of values and perceptions, both of them internally consistent and neither with a definitive claim to priority over the other. When Nunez (Martin Parr) agrees to have his eyes put out for love of Medina (a disarming Alison Seddon), he is not capitulating to the villagers' values but making a considered evaluation of what he has to gain and what to lose; ultimately, though, he reneges and sneaks back to his own world.

We are used to London fringe productions of greater scope and perhaps greater ambition; that we may overlook such small achievements as this is due to precisely the kind of entrapment within a particular belief system that the play non-judgementally enacts.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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