Lungs is not explicitly a ‘climate change play.’ Duncan Macmillan has no interest in shoving capital-‘I’-issues down his audience’s throat – but what he does do is show them two people thinking about the rest of their lives in a way that most people from this generation will surely recognise. What pervades Lungs is the sense that it’s difficult to picture a future that feels like the world we’ve grown up in, a future that hasn’t been climate changed – and how can any of us accurately factor all that terrifying known unknown in when making decisions?
Paines Plough have brought two Macmillan plays to their portable Roundabout space at Summerhall, this and Every Brilliant Thing, and both of them seem very gently and un-showily set on breaking your heart. This two-hander, beautifully performed by Abdul Salis and Sian Reese-Williams, gets inside the relationship of two educated thirty-somethings deciding whether or not to have kids. Their desire for children is pitted against the knowledge that, environmentally speaking, there’s little they can do that is worse for the planet than put another human being on it.
The naturalism of Macmillan’s dialogue is off-set by the stylised nature of George Perrin’s direction, with the characters discussing and describing the things they are doing (shopping in Ikea, say, or cuddling on the couch) while still facing each other, not touching. If it sounds pretentious, it isn’t; it gives the show the air of a radio play at times, but there’s also something satisfying about the couple’s distance from one another, something sad about seeing them say that they’re touching one another when they’re not. They remain, as much as they love one another, essentially two very separate people at all times, not quite as united as they tell themselves they are.
As a dissection of the mechanics of a relationship, Lungs is remarkable. Both characters are nuanced and well-drawn, and the way they love but misunderstand one another, tear strips off each other, is horrible to watch. The level of complexity and reality in Macmillan’s writing is stunning and a lot of its strength lies in its understatement: the quiet disappointment of having to accept that even the person who loves you most may never know you as well as you want, or be able to interpret without effort what it is that you need.
It’s not bleak to watch, for all that it sounds it. Macmillan’s peppered the whole thing with plenty of good jokes and funny conceits, as when, before they’ve even decided whether or not to try for a baby, the couple talk about schools and how kids grow up and hate you and leave, the enormity of the concept of actually bringing another person into the world running clean away with them.
I can’t put my finger on why I didn’t find Lungs as moving as some of the other, audibly sniffling, audience members (and I’m a big crier. I had to sit down in the street after Constellations) – perhaps I’m just a little young to fully identify with that to-breed-or-not-to-breed point in a relationship. But even if you don’t entirely emotionally connect with Lungs, it remains intellectually fascinating, Macmillan tapping perfectly into that terror of the future that characterises our generation, a bleak-looking future we’ve inherited that we don’t entirely understand or know how to avoid. He doesn’t shy away from tackling big themes but never loses an eye for the minutiae, the personal in the political, and with moving performances from its two leads to boot, Lungs is assured, grab-you-by-the-heart theatre that will live on in your mind long after the actors have taken their bows.