Tag Archives: climate change

Lungs – The Old Vic

Lungs - Old Vic (by Helen Maybanks)

“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.

Lungs is at the Old Vic until 9 November with tickets from  £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   


Film Review: Downsizing

In recent months, climate change has been at the top of the international political agenda; with America controversially withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement last August, extreme weather bringing plenty of devastation and the BBC’s monster hit Blue Planet warning of its oceanic effects on primetime television, momentum to understand and act to reduce the effects of global warming is growing. Of the many novel solutions addressing the damaging impact of humanity on the natural world,  and perhaps the most unusual, is the one put forward by Alexander Payne’s new film Downsizing which premiered at the London Film Festival last October – if we want to reduce our impact on the world we simply need to reduce the size of humans.

This is not the first time that writers and movie-makers have used this idea for surreal or comic effect resulting in work as divergent as Alice in Wonderland, Honey I Shrunk the Kids and Innerspace that unite science fiction, fantasy and sometimes farce as the characters overcome numerous challenges to be restored to their true size. The difference with Downsizing is that the reduction is permanent, and so the film looks elsewhere for its dramatic drivers, with the scientific process for physically shrinking people used as a frame for a wider examination of inequality, deprivation and the empty pursuit of the American dream.

If all that sounds rather serious then don’t despair because Downsizing begins on a much lighter note. When a Scandinavian scientist stuns the world with his community of tiny humans who produce considerably less waste in miniature form than their fully sized counterparts, the ability to transform rapidly becomes a widescale commercial success. Several years later, humanity is divided into two, those who retain their full size and those who have become only 5 inches tall, with the latter living in specially designed communities.

The real story begins when Paul and Audrey Safranek’s (Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig) decide to give up the drabness of their current life of making ends meet to undergo the ‘downsizing’ process. But something goes wrong and Paul is left alone in his new community where he is unwillingly dragged into the colourful world of his exuberant international neighbour Dusan (Christoph Waltz). While at his lowest point, Paul discovers that this perfect mini-world is not all it seems, and beyond the boundaries of the rich community poverty and overcrowding exist. As Paul is introduced to the underclass by Dusan’s no-nonsense cleaner Ngoc (Hong Chau) he realises life could have more meaning than he ever imagined.

Downsizing is only a partially successful film and its best moments are in the first 75 minutes where the focus on the shrinking process is convincingly plotted and well-conceived. Watching the Safranek’s evaluated their lives, meet friends who have been shrunk and even attend a cleverly-staged trade fair where companies attempt to sell them miniature houses to live in and to “buy” the lifestyle they want upfront. There is lots of nicely considered detail including the relative transfer of wealth that makes money worth more in the smaller world, so that if the struggling Safraneks transform they could live in relative luxury, in a mansion without having to work again – a key reason for many to take the plunge rather than reducing their environmental impact.

Science-fiction fans will also enjoy the focus on the physical procedure as the audience follows Paul through his preparation for reduction including the removal of all his hair and marks, being wheeled, along with the other men, into the shrinking machine before removal to recovery by tiny nurses at the other end. Payne also injects a childlike glee in visually establishing the different scale of items within the story representing its shrunken humans against now giant everyday objects including biscuit packets, bottles and a single rose head.

Payne, who wrote the film along with Jim Taylor, also manages Paul’s disillusionment well as he adjusts to his newer lonely life. Much humour is wrung from Dunsan’s elaborate parties and from Christoph Waltz’s characterisation which draws a useful contrast between the carefree sun-seeking approach to his new life and Paul’s much lonelier journey of displacement. Even the discovery of the high-rise slums beyond the Stepford-like community seems to have something interesting to say about the cost of elaborate dreams and the almost inevitable division between rich and poor that will exist regardless of socially engineered attempts to iron them out. Living your dream life will always be at someone else’s expense. If only this was presented more subtly, but it is in this section of the film that the fun dissipates rapidly, leaving a serious and rather po-faced story in its place.

In the final part of the film, Downsizing’s plotting and purpose become over-elaborate and confused, departing considerably from what seemed to be the original purpose of the film. With a misfit group of unlikely friends now established, the action sees the group leave America on a spurious premise to track down the original tiny community and link back into the original scientific purpose of shrinking people. Even though this dominates the final hour of the film, it feels rather tacked on, and by geographically opening the story out it loses the focus it had established.

The two communities are not sufficiently connected to warrant this journey, and while the film has primarily been concerned with Paul’s growing understanding and adaptation to his new world, the sudden focus on a new hippy community, climate change and the madness that ensues from cutting yourself off with the world is too jarring and cartoon-like to be convincing. Had Downsizing remained in its original community-setting, tackling the inequality it presents in living conditions while allowing Paul to find some sense of contentment, it would have felt more dramatically satisfying than what is a mish mash of silly ideas that are neither amusing or really very meaningful.

Matt Damon is decent everyman Paul whose comedy partnership with Kristen Wiig’s Audrey works very nicely in the film’s early scenes and they make for a convincing couple. Damon, though never given the opportunity to do very much, navigates the film’s changing tones quite well, conveying all of Paul’s excitement to start a new life, disappointment and depression at being left alone, frustration with his neighbour and growing admiration for the people he meets in the deprived tower blocks. Yet, there’s never a chance to get inside his head, although much of that is down to the film’s inconsistent tone – if it’s a light comedy then characterisation is less important, while something more serious needs proper character motivation.

With a broadly comic performance, Christoph Waltz as Dunsan is an unexpected highlight as the sociable but socially unaware European neighbour who rescues Paul from his malaise. Used to seeing Waltz as psychopaths and megalomaniacs, he creates a surprisingly camp and eccentric character that steals most of the film’s more amusing moments, and while in any other movie this would feel hugely exaggerated, Waltz brings some much-needed light relief in the later parts of the film.

Hong Chau is an actor to watch and her performance as former Vietnamese activist turned cleaner Ngoc is full of promise with sharp comic timing and the ability to bring out the emotional undertones of any scene. Yet, there is something slightly amiss in the way the character is written and despite Chau’s performance, it’s difficult not to feel slightly uncomfortable with way Ngoc is positioned as the butt of stereotypical jokes about her stilted English and blunt demeanour, it’s really not the 1980s any more. And as for other female characters, apart from Wiig’s all to brief appearance in the early part of the film, this ultimately boils down to yet another story about a man saving the world when, what amounts to his own greed for a more luxurious life, made him to see things differently.

What starts as a social satire that revels in the visual humour of differently scaled objects unfortunately descends into a heavy-handed message-film that takes itself a bit too seriously and ultimately has very little to do with the consequences of shrinking people. With an ending that is entirely out of kilter with the original set-up and a meandering plot that becomes too elaborate for the writers to successfully conclude, Downsizing leaves the audience both disappointed and slightly uneasy. There is about an hour’s worth of good comedy in here and if it had continued to satirise the preoccupation with individual wealth over community then it would have been a much more successful film, but with its muddied and half-hearted environmental credentials, Downsizing falls a little short.

Downsizing was previewed at the London Film Festival and opens in the UK on 24th January. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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