The two-minute warning bell chimes, telling us to take our seats, and it feels like we have returned home, in a way. We are definitely in a new frontier, a vibrant and determined one that hasn’t encapsulated this feeling since the lockdown began. I’m excited and with much anticipation I opened up my laptop, clicked on the link, and was quickly delivered to The Old Vic‘s Zoom room viewing of Lungs. This intriguing new play is a wonderful re-entry, streaming us into a theatrical world I most dearly miss. It’s a stellar idea, rekindling a live breath-taking performance of a beautifully intimate play with the 202-year-old venue’s theatrical seating as the backdrop. Midway through, tears came to my eyes, and not just because of Duncan Macmillan’s dynamically orchestrated, emotional rollercoaster of a play, which it truly is, but for a whole conceptual tug on my heart, because what we are witnessing and being part of is something that is happening live in a theatre at this very moment, albeit on the other side of the pond, most defiantly in the here and now. It’s not a streamed reading of a play (which have been wonderful and I’m so grateful for them, don’t take this the wrong way), but a full bodied actual performance by two wildly talented actors on a stage giving us something akin to live theatre, a thing that I love dearly, and one that I have witnessed since the theatres started to close back in mid-March.
With minimal staging and accessible only by live-streamed camera work and editing, Lungs is a one of a kind thrill. “Are we good people?” she asks, and the dangerous waters from the melting ice caps rise up threatening against this unmarried couple, played magnificently by the dynamic duo; Claire Foy and Matt Smith, the Queen and Prince of “The Crown“. The love they have for one another vibrates outward, shooting through the airwaves and grabbing hold of our hearts as we sit in our comfortably isolated rooms watching a thing that is happening right now on the London stage of The Old Vic. They are having a conversation, or, should I say, he’s having a conversation, or starting one, that he decided on in the lineup of IKEA. Foy’s character is not ready, nor are we, but we gladly grab hold of the wheel and settle in for a strong well-driven ride.
It’s about having a baby, and the opening of the play, as directed by Matthew Warchus (Broadway’s A Christmas Carol, Groundhog Day) is as fucking shocking to her as it is gripping and hilarious to us. Her contradictory magnificence is charged, and the monologue she drives into, about an unraveling of beliefs, is as perfect a piece of theatre as one could hope for. Written with wise swings of assuredness by Macmillan, who gave us the utterly heartwrenching and brilliant People, Places, and Things, the text is almost “sacred, not sacred, but yeah” sacred, as said by the young soon-to-be-maybe-impregnated woman to her confused excited animalistic lover/not husband. Why on earth should we do this, they ponder, almost brilliantly and endlessly, bring a baby into this terribly overpopulated world? We can’t help but layer a few more good reasons on top as we sit in our homes watching a play online during a pandemic with CNN reporting on the (possible) end of civilization as we know it downstairs. And this brilliance was first performed in 2011, way before all this madness had taken over the airwaves.
The performances stalk and pace around one another, keeping a correct social distance from the other that doesn’t, for a minute, detract from the play. It surprisingly, only enhances every inch of their conflicted interactions, adding electricity that jumps across those two meters with ease. The script digs into the contextual debate on our personal and universal responsibility for saving a planet that seems, at the moment, to be doomed. The couple, struggle and worry about the carbon footprint of a baby (“10,000 tonnes of CO2”) and wring their hands about the state of the world with authentic angst. “We recycle,” they strongly tell themselves over and over again, a theme played out just with different words and scenarios. Their chemistry is undeniable, and the characters find the perfect physical repartee that builds up, step by step, their internalized spark to an emotionally intoxicating level. The idealism and compulsive need to be seen as “good people” radiates from within their very souls, even as they undergo complicated dysfunction and disturbances on the simplistic dual tiled set, designed with specificity by Rob Howell (Broadway’s The Ferryman), who also is responsible for the casually pure costuming.
With lighting by Tim Lutkin (Princess of Wales’ Strictly Ballroom, the Musical) and the broadcast sound and video production by Simon Baker & Jay Jones, alongside camera operators Avril Cook & Josh Reeves and production manager Dominic Fraser sitting on stage with the actors, the time spins and accelerates with conflictual alternating ease. Frenetic and sharp, their twirling guilty crisis is current and clear. The power dynamic shifts quickly from sexual politics, domination, and aggression to environmental correctness within one breath. It’s hard to keep attuned to the changing of the wind, and in Foy’s mid-sentence reversals, we see the modern tinge of traditional gender politics turned asunder. We stumble as much as Smith does trying to keep up with her intellectual honesty. It’s the thing he loves the most about her character and the quality that pulls us so easily into their shifting formulations and standoffs.
Warchus’s direction seethes with dynamic energy, pitting them against one another while also throwing them together with such sexual force, but without the physical proximity. Smith finds epic qualities in his paralysis, questioning her wants and needs, without any clues what to hold on to. It’s a traditional argument; tell me what you need, as I can’t read your mind; with the retort, you should know without me telling you, if you really loved me. But the outward contradictions fail brilliantly internal, heaving and sighing as the two gasps deeply for air and survival, trying to hold on to life and intimate connection.
The verbal combat stands solidly opposed to one another, six feet apart, even as they speak as if entwined in each other’s arms. The scenes shift time and place seamlessly, and we follow hopelessly and willingly at their whim. The two create a space that is heartbreaking and exciting, and they lead us to the edge of a troubled world that we can’t quite see, but can imagine quite clearly. It has electricity and is imbued in something powerful and dangerous. This is what live theatre is all about, and I couldn’t get enough. It made me weep for these types of moments that we have lost because of COVID19, and excited for their return once theatre itself roars back onto the stage to breathe deeply into its hungry lungs. And in that moment, we all will gladly be whisked away once more.
Click here for more information about upcoming performances. Each performance of LUNGS will be available for up to 1,000 people per night (with some matinees) replicating our usual audience capacity size. Tickets will be priced as they are in our auditorium from £10–£65 and whilst all ‘seats’ offer the same view (from the comfort of your own home), we’re asking audiences to give what they can to help support our theatre in return for access to this totally unique experience. There is also the option to add a further donation on top of this for those who are able to give a little more. – The Old Vic.
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