“We’re good people aren’t we?” wonders the neurotic couple at the center of Duncan Macmillan’s play that examines attitudes to climate change by contrasting the theoretical and statistical conscience of W and M with their desire and fundamental biological drive to procreate. And in the week where Extinction Rebellion continue to make headlines with protests all over London and in the context of inspirational messaging from Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough’s major appeal to cut single-use plastics, the effects of human behaviour on the world and its immediate future couldn’t be more relevant. But while Macmillan uses the planetary effects of child rearing as a frame for Lungs, his focus is on the two flawed people at the centre of all this confusion, wondering what it means to be a good person and still get all the things you want.
And Lungs is far more than an extended rant with Macmillan’s intriguing structural approach being one of the most notable features of the play. Performed in the round on a platform of solar panels with mounds of rocky earth breaking through the otherwise flat structure designed by Rob Howell, Lungs has no scene changes or visible locations. Instead, time, place and the activities or changes in between are only revealed through the text in a continuous flow much like life itself which never breaks so neatly into distinct chapters. Reference to a particular location such as the Ikea car park with only a beat between one scene and the next is the basis for much of the play’s humour, where the audience only later discover that the shocking, emotionally turbulent or intimate conversation we’ve eavesdropped on is happening in an unexpected place, often to hilarious effect.
The lack of scenery and any attempt by the actors to indicate location may sound like a strange and disconcerting experience, one that would surely alienate an audience from the story Macmillan is telling. Yet, while Lungs borrows the clothes of Brechtian and absurdist drama, in Director Matthew Warchus’s interpretation, on the contrary, the viewer is not only drawn into the central relationship but the approach also makes the issues and emotions they face feel more universal, as though any of us could graft these conversations onto our own lives. Throughout the play, this creates considerable investment in the outcome, with occasional gasps of surprise reverberating around the auditorium as information is slowly revealed in the final third that alters what we know – until this point, you may not have even realised you cared about them so much.
Much of this is down to Macmillan’s impressive characterisation which, like the minimalist approach to staging, is more engaging than perhaps the pen portraits developed in the early scenes suggests. On paper, there are many things about this play that shouldn’t work; the dramatic direction of the story isn’t revelatory, some of the twists are fairly predictable, even cliched, while the bulk insertion of climate change data that both characters recite at each other should feel really clunky. But Macmillan achieves something remarkable by making his couple feel like people who would have read and memorised these kinds of facts in order to win a future theoretical argument with each other and their equally guilt-ridden friends (who we never see but are easy to imagine). And through this wordy but warmly engaging dialogue between two people who thought they were entirely in harmony, Macmillan weaves some kind of magic, making us care about their deeply flawed and muddle-headed reality.
Part of the success of Lungs is that this is not the uber-liberal, finger-wagging climate change play you expect it to be, and although Macmillan’s overall message is that we are reaching the tipping point, he’s really examining why individual action may never be enough, that selfish human needs and decisions at the micro-level will always take priority whatever the consequences. We watch W and M agonise for a long time about the carbon footprint that having a child will engender, comparing it to the daily flights to New York they could take or similar. And yet, in spite of the angst they express, the theoretical cost doesn’t ultimately affect their decision to proceed or not, so how much of their intellectual debate is lip-service to developing trends in expected middle class behaviours? And while Macmillan takes the opportunity to skewer the cosy ideas of recycling, energy-saving bulbs and organic shopping that make us and them feel like good people, the focus remains on the interaction between the couple.
W is a character you assume will come to be incredibly frustrating during the 100-minute run time. She explodes onto the stage in a mass of confused thoughts, over-processed reactions and exaggerated emphasis, the kind of person who lacks the ability to differentiate between internal monologue and vocalised emotions. When boyfriend M suggests they consider having a baby her mind is thrown into disarray from which a virtually uninterrupted monologue emerges that essentially continues throughout the play as she attempts to process, rationalise and cope with the events that follow.
What is so interesting about Macmillan’s writing is how rapidly we warm to W, how the muddy hypothesising that tries to make logical sense of her situation and the conflicted principles it creates in her mind fight a losing battle against the biological impulse to create and nurture life – not necessarily because a child is something she desperately wants or because of declining fertility, but because a child becomes an act of both genetic legacy and of continuation, where two ancestral lines come together – arguments W obliquely makes in a debate about the wider context of child rearing. Through this we come to feel the confusion, warmth and loneliness that W experiences on a trajectory that takes the couple in an unexpected direction.
By contrast, M is more straightforward, certainly in his emotional responses if not necessarily in being any less neurotic than his girlfriend. M’s view of the world seems clearer, more basic, as though acts can be committed and then taken back if you rethink. So like climate change, the choice to have a child is reversible in his view, that nature can be controlled, harnessed and contained with enough human determination – and when the might of nature strikes back at this couple in two distinct ways the folly of their over-planning is revealed. Although M raises the question of children, he could just as easily be asking if they should get a takeaway for dinner so casually is the topic introduced and so poorly considered before he speaks.
The path they take is one that finds M emotionally at odds with his partner, developing feelings his cannot express and equally unable to understand her needs. Macmillan again has taken what could be a fairly generic male character and turns his own confused outlook into something we can at least relate to if not exactly sympathise with. The enormity of a child and the enormity of the climate change problem are to M the same unscalable dilemma and his response to both becomes occasionally insensitive, even weak if not surprising. He’s not painted as an out and out villain but instead Macmillan makes his efforts seem, small, bumbling, inept and very human.
The reunion of The Crown co-leads Claire Foy and Matt Smith is a big coup for the Old Vic given the rare appearances both are able to make on stage, as well as being a well-timed one given that the next generation Netflix cast will unveil the new series in mid-November. Both are superb here and entirely believable as the couple who use words and principles to mask their deep love for one another – and it is this rather than their need to save the world or share it with a child that keeps them together. This sits under Macmillan’s story as he takes the couple through some difficult times.
Together Foy and Smith manage the technical flow of the play extremely well, building the relationship as well as the changing locations and time periods with little more than a breath between scenes. They make you care about these people, grounding them in a credibility and reality that slowly counteracts the difficult personality traits that Macmillan has given them. Foy arguably has the more complex character, W is a bundle of contradictions, a woman who seems to imprison her emotions in logic, someone whose life is always planned, clear and filled with direction expressed in continual verbiage. What is so interesting about this performance is seeing how W responds to surprises – of which there are many in this play – and Foy’s particular gift is for revealing W’s instinctual needs and how they emerge from her controlled exterior. What seems neurotic initially becomes increasingly touching as Foy builds W’s emotional state where she can no longer control her responses, it’s a brilliant and illuminating performance.
M has less depth as a character and spends much of the play mutely listening or enduring W’s verbal assault, yet Smith navigates the character’s contradictions really well, suggesting a man who wants a quiet life but is still deeply attracted to this very complicated woman. Smith also suggest the small hurts that affect M’s responses to W as the story unfolds, the build-up of his own sense of isolation and inability to cope with the pressure of these scenarios that take the pair into uncharted territory. His storyline may not take M anywhere unusual but Smith ensures you understand why he behaves as he does and remain invested in the outcome.
Lungs suggests that not only will nature make its own way through our lives however much we try to plan every detail, and while the concept of a child may be the engine of the story, it is never really the point. The wonderful connection between Foy and Smith adds an extra dimension to the text, the perfect fit of this imperfect couple is truly at the heart of this play. The last 10-minutes feel tacked-on, a look into the future that breaks the spell and makes for a weaker conclusion than this play deserves, but it does have a purpose and Macmillan is challenging us to see that individual action is really so small in the face of the climate problem, that we may congratulate ourselves on the things we do to make a difference, but ultimately those contributions are insufficient because no one is prepared to make the big sacrifices we need. Maybe we are good people but perhaps none of us are really good enough.