A woman watches two men and a woman stumble blindly, then fall and cry out. The pain is evident - but more on the face of the sighted than those of the blind. The scene comes from Hong Kong Repertory Theatre's latest production, Blindness, based on Jose Saramago's Nobel Prize-winning novel of the same title, which premiered at Kwai Tsing Theatre last night. The play describes an unusual epidemic: an inexplicable blindness that spreads from person to person and threatens to engulf the city. The story immediately gripped Wang Xiaoying, vice-president of the National Theatre Company of China and director of the production, who came across the novel during the 2003 Sars outbreak. 'I read about this book in a newspaper and was interested right away,' he says. 'The novel puts people in an extreme situation, and observes the side of human nature that's brought out.' He first contacted Fredric Mao Chun-fai, artistic director of the Rep, three years ago, sounding out a collaboration between the two companies. But it wasn't until last year that the production was confirmed. A story about an epidemic has a particular resonance in Hong Kong. Actor Sun Wai-keung says associations with Sars and avian flu are inevitable, but the play helps people put events into perspective. 'Hong Kong was lucky actually,' he says. 'We experienced major outbreaks, but we controlled them well, and through the disaster we saw the co-operative spirit of Hong Kong people. The outbreak in Blindness shows the ugly side of human nature instead.' Mao says he hopes to stimulate the audiences. 'I think many plays in Hong Kong today are afraid to talk about serious issues,' he says. 'It's understandable that we prefer talking about familiar issues that we come into contact with in our daily lives, but the arts shouldn't be restricted to the everyday or the realistic.' The novel is surreal yet plausible. Faced with an out- break of contagious blindness, the government panics and quarantines the infected in a mental asylum, guarded by soldiers who are authorised to shoot on sight. As the asylum becomes overcrowded, sanitation and food supplies deteriorate, order breaks down and the inmates are forced to question their humanity. They finally escape, only to find a ruined city whose government has collapsed and whose entire population is blind. The female lead, played by Poon Pik-wan, is the wife of an eye-doctor and the only person who keeps her sight throughout the play. Being able to see, she works the hardest to maintain a sense of dignity and harmony in the ward, and eventually guides the characters out of the asylum. Mao says she brings out an uplifting message in the play that shows Saramago's ultimately optimistic view of human nature, despite the uglier facets he also examines in the novel. But Wang says Poon's character suffers the most. 'Most characters can accept and adapt to the deteriorating situation and the degradation they suffer because they can't see it happening,' he says. 'However, she is forced to live with everything she sees, which is very difficult.' Poon says that what distinguishes her character is not her eyesight but the choices she makes. 'She begins as an ordinary woman, but when she faces these escalating problems, she's forced to make a series of choices that are different from those of other characters. I think it's the choices that make people who they are.' Wang wanted the actors to use their eyes to express their blindness and emotions - a technique Sun says makes the play more believable. 'People who are born blind don't know how to use their eyes at all,' Sun says. 'But people who suddenly lose their sight will try even harder to see and communicate with their eyes than before, even though they can't see anything.' Wang says that, through their blindness, Saramago's characters learn to see in a different way. Taken out of the context of everyday life they become more aware of the good and bad in human nature. 'We're generally more willing to acknowledge goodness in humans and less inclined to look at the negative,' Wang says. 'But the characters face difficult challenges and some begin to give up their dignity, before struggling to pick up their humanity and sense of morality again. I hope the audience will also think about tough situations where their dignity may be challenged, and how they would like to face them.'