Digital Theatre review: Lungs (Old Vic In Camera)
James R | On 02, Jul 2020
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“I could fly to New York and back every day for seven years and still not leave a carbon footprint as big as if I had a child.” That’s the sound of a couple grappling with the dilemma of becoming parents in the modern world, a world that has been transformed beyond recognition by the climate crisis. It’s an eerily fitting play, then, for the Old Vic Theatre to stage remotely during the coronavirus pandemic. Streamed live from an empty auditorium (the start of a series called “Old Vic In Camera”), it’s a sparse, raw dissection of a relationship that, if anything, benefits from being even more stripped down.
Claire Foy and Matt Smith play the unnamed man and woman at the centre of the play, whose bond we observe up close, even though we’re not even in the same room. They move through a range of scenarios, from queuing up at IKEA to going clubbing, all the while debating the moral conundrums of trying to do right by the Earth. Should they have a child and raise them as a good person, like them? Should they be really considerate and not have one at all, saving 10,000 tons of CO2? Can they make up for all of the damage they’ve unwittingly done to the world by planting some trees? And what about the avocados they like to import and eat?
Duncan Macmillan’s play was written back in 2011, but almost 10 years on, all of these questions have only become more pressing, as consumption of resources, plastic usage and – yes – population growth continually increase. Matthew Warchus’ production, which was originally staged in 2019, wittily places each character on their own solar panel-shaped base on each side of the stage, giving them space to socially distance while ensuring the environmental fears underpinning the whole thing are never out of sight, or out of mind.
Smith and Foy starred together in the original show, and they reprise their roles without missing a beat. As if they’ve walked straight from that curtain call right on to your screen, Claire and Matt are instantly believable together, able to conjure up the hopes, the excitement, the frustrations and the weary familiarity of a serious relationship – often all in the space of a few seconds. Claire Foy’s facial expressions can convey the whole gamut of human emotions, while Matt Smith’s gangly physicality is used to brilliantly awkward and withdrawn effect; they each give committed, gripping performances, often in extreme close-up with nowhere to hide.
They jump from argument to joking to sex, but the fact that we never see any physical intimacy or contact between them – each actor’s camera stream is placed next to each other on a black Zoom screen – emphasises the distance expanding between them the more they try to reconcile their double-standards with their self-perception. There’s a witty subversion and exploration of gender roles at play, as Smith’s man is both traditionally masculine yet not, while Foy’s woman is empowered but also uncertain. Both have to come to terms with the way that life can override even the most fervent of principles, that life and death are unavoidable, unstoppable forces beyond the most strongly held ideals.
Building to a poignant conclusion without an interval, the result is a quietly jaw-dropping piece of theatre, one that takes us back and forth through the rollercoaster of love, family and commitment during a strange time of isolation and existential dread. Gasp-inducing, funny and deeply moving, it’s a masterful examination of life today, as an entire generation grows up knowing constant uncertainty about almost everything – and not just because of the coronavirus pandemic. With tickets being sold at a range of prices per performance (up to the maximum 1,000-person capacity of the theatre), here’s hoping that this innovative, rewarding production is enough to ensure that the Old Vic Theatre is around to keep holding a mirror up to life after the pandemic too.
Lungs: Old Vic In Camera is streaming on Friday 3rd and Saturday 4th July. Tickets are available here.