Review of Lungs: The Future of Socially-Distanced Theatre?

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It is not often we get front row seats to a theatrical paradigm shift.

This is a play without a scene or costume changes, just with two actors and a lot of dialogue. Playwright Duncan Macmillan writes two nameless characters who are deciding whether or not to have a baby. Not only does it address the difficulties of modern western relationships and the human identity, but it also takes a satirical view of global warming and our future, in long strung-out monologues that make for both a gift and a challenge to actors, Macmillan said.

The Old Vic originally planned for Lungs to be performed on stage before the COVID-19 restrictions closed down in-person shows. Now, it is being live-streamed online so people can watch from the comfort and safety of their own homes (though charging normal theatre admission which makes sense but that doesn’t mean I’m happy about it). For each performance between June and July, only 1000 tickets were sold – and they were hard to get hold of, considering everything is virtual now.

But, credit where it’s due, they tried to recreate the atmosphere. In the run-up to the show, there was the hubbub of an audience (although the sound of that one group who always makes too much noise is sadly amiss) followed by the bell before the show starts. So, down I sat, in my pyjamas with my hair in a mess, a mug of tea and a knock-off Baileys (because I forgot to buy milk) and a big bowl of ice-cream to watch one of the biggest contemporary satires of our age. I may miss the physicality of going to see the stage but I can appreciate some of the theatre’s adaptations to this strange new world.

Directed by Matthew Warchus, Lungs aids theatre into the new government regulations for COVID – and it does it with style. The two actors, Matt Smith and Claire Foy, maintain six feet between them like a dance. It’s truly stunning to watch. It might be the first time I’ve seen every regulation in place.

The couple deciding whether or not to have a baby would otherwise hold each other, kiss, and show more physical affection. Smith and Foy have famously crackling energy between them, having starred in The Crown as the young Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, but when you have to be consciously aware of two metres distance at all times, some of the sparks fall a little flat. Admittedly, Warchus uses forced perspective and split-screen filming to hint at a physical intimacy and touching between the actors.

However, the real beauty of Warchus’ directorial progression comes at the curtain call. A glass screen is rolled out and the actors kiss through the pane. That one small act feels so grounding. It speaks out about our current situation more than any monologue ever could. It reminds us of the world we’re living in and what that means for love and the future.

One could comment on the prescience of a play such as Lungs, on how writer Macmillan has encapsulated so perfectly the worries of our generation for their future and their children. One could comment on how Smith and Foy, two actors with incredible energy between them, struggle so realistically for intimacy under government regulations. And one could comment on how Warchus directs perhaps the first play of its kind and pioneers a new age of theatre.

But the last thing I would like to end on is this: watching Lungs from our current position, locked in our own homes with fear weighing on millions across the world, it is easy to hear the voice of the arts industry in Matt Smith and Claire Foy. Now more than ever, arts such as theatre are almost on borrowed time. Companies are being forced to adapt or surrender. Hearing the two characters of Lungs muse about their future, about whether they are truly good people, about whether it’s right to bring a child into this world, feels a lot like listening to the arts industry muse about its future, about whether it is essential enough to be saved, about whether it’s right to go on in this climate.

And that is a haunting thing to watch when you’re sitting in your pyjamas, a little bit tipsy, just trying to watch Matt Smith and Claire Foy because you miss The Crown.

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