I feel like Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs has permeated so much of British new writing in the past nine years since its premiere, and yet, there is still something so arresting about it when it is in full flow — it’s close enough to everyday speech to feel grounded and recognisable, but heightened by one or two notches, refracted into something slightly unreal. Real life conversations are rarely this muscular in tone and style, nor are our thoughts so precisely modulated — seemingly spontaneous, but governed by elastic dramaturgy. On a technical level, it is deeply satisfying to watch Lungs. It is dizzyingly dexterous writing, still, even if its freshness has been dampened in the nine years since its premiere.
I watched Matthew Warchus’s Old Vic revival, starring Matt Smith and Claire Foy, back in November, from a restricted view in the slips. It didn’t really work for me. From the slips, it just didn’t carry, its fizzy energy lost somewhere between the gilded proscenium arch and the back of the upper circle. It is a small, dense play, one which goes round and round in circles, tying itself up in knots. No amount of star power can make it properly land at the back of a 1000 seat theatre, because it was never built for that type of space. Its architecture can only stretch so far — and a production like Warchus’s, which prefers to look in rather than out, does little to help that. Watching it over livestream suits it better — even if the Old Vic’s decision to have tiered ticket prices between £10 and £65 felt like a somewhat clumsy attempt to bring in donations. It feels more claustrophobic on screen, more searching, more palpably anxious when played out in an ominously silent theatre, without the gales of laughter that greeted it in its initial run.
Lungs is about the climate crisis, but it is also about a couple deciding whether or not to have a baby, and how that decision makes them confront things within their relationship, themselves, and (occasionally) society at large. The climate crisis hangs over everything M and W talk about, and yet it remains this vague, nebulous thing, hovering like a cloud without ever actually granting a downpour. Macmillan updated the text for the 2019 revival, which amounts to a few more recent statistics, but they feel like cosmetic modifications — a jump in the population from almost 6 billion to 8 billion in the past few years is a seismic shift, but this update declines to really reckon with that. It feels like a tricky and flawed decision — there’s a surface level acknowledgement that we are, now, much more fucked than we were in 2011 (as M comments, now it’s mostly about “adaptation, mitigation,” rather than attempting to stop the crisis fully in its tracks), but properly engaging with this reality would require an entire structural overhaul, or indeed, possibly an entirely new play.
In Warchus’s production particularly, there is the sense that the crisis operates primarily as a metaphor for the couple’s relationship, rather than something which has a very real effect on inter- and intrapersonal relationships. Unlike Katie Mitchell’s 2013 production, which had the two actors generating power for the show by pedalling on stationary bicycles throughout, the climate crisis becomes something close to plot texture — one of a multitude of contemporary, interlinked anxieties that the couple face, rather than an all-encompassing existential threat which creeps into everything. In Mitchell’s production, the pedalling would impact the delivery of the lines, making the effect of the climate crisis something molecular, something which affected the way in which the show would be performed — Warchus, in contrast, seems more interested in the meat of the relationship between M and W.
There are pockets of real beauty to this relationship — it is full of the contradictions that one might expect from two people who have been together for a long time, full of casual cruelties that are brushed off in the moment but lodge themselves deep in the ribs, only to fully sprout years later. M and W have an intriguing, slightly off-kilter balance — a sort of teetering, see-sawing relationship which always falls heavier on one side than the other. See the way he completes her sentences without even really thinking about it? A symbol of solidity, maybe, but also reminiscent of someone plugging a leak with duct tape. Small fissures keep opening up under their feet. It’s a hard balance to strike, and one which Smith in particular, as M, cannot quite hold convincingly. He reads a laconism in M which comes out as almost totally unreadability onstage — in vast contrast to Foy’s searching, tactile performance, which feels a bit like watching a satellite burn up as it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere. His role is more reactive, full of stops and starts and half-aborted sentences, while she is a tidal wave of thoughts, nothing regulated or considered before being thrown out into the open. Over livestream, you can see the shadows moving under the waves as the camera zooms in tight on Smith’s face, but there still remains a sense of distance to his performance. I do wonder what the effect of performing onstage, but without a physical audience, has on actors — indeed, he comes across as oddly mimetic. M remains an enigma, even when he is openly confessing his fears to his sleeping partner’s back. Macmillan writes with full awareness of their often selfish, self-absorbed, (in this case, white) middle class anxieties, but Warchus’s direction, back in November, always felt a little broad, not as satirical of its audience demographic as one might hope.
Warchus divides Smith and Foy into a split screen, divided by a thin black line. It is initially jarring, this enforced separation between the actors — an extra divide onscreen, on top of the physical two metre distance they already employ — but it quickly becomes rote, in a way that feels depressingly familiar. They are extra atomised in this livestream, which pushes more of an existential edge onto the production as a whole — it feels less grounded, less realist than the original. There is one quietly sublime moment where they find out that W is pregnant for the first time and the camera slowly pans out until you can almost see the whole expanse of the stage, stranding them in black space, unable to even reach out and hold one another.
Part of the play’s skill is in its sly awareness that M and W’s existential fears about the climate are both real and unreal — they are fearful about the state of the planet, but that fear is also partially an excuse to skip over the fact that having a child is terrifying in its own right. That never fully lands in this production — it still works as a piece, but there is a peculiar shallowness to it, too, which I just couldn’t shake, both back in November and now. If its handling of the climate crisis was what made it feel a little dated and slight back in 2019, then now, it is more because of the conversations we as an industry have been having over the last month or so. The Lungs livestream was announced before the majority of big pushes for more accountability and representation came, but there is a certain depressing irony in its focus on inaction and liberal hand-wringing when it feels like we have reached a point where many in the theatre world (and indeed, wider society) have decided that talking cannot be viewed any longer as a viable substitute for tangible, material change — particularly when one is aware (via Theatre Call to Action) that the Old Vic has 0% Black representation across their staff and senior management. There is something to be said, however, about how Lungs is a play interested in the collective and the individual, in responsibility and insufficiency and about how impossible it feels to ever make a truly selfless decision, but how we shouldn’t not try to make those decisions on behalf of the greater good. It is an imperfect piece of work, but one that is still worth learning from. I hope the Old Vic is listening.