Lungs, written by Duncan Macmillan, simultaneously portrays some of the most pressing concerns of our time and of all time: it tackles climate change and the inevitability of the climate crisis, combined with the complexity of human relationships.
With its hurtling pace and no pause for an interval, the audience cannot help but feel the sense of the urgency of carbon offsetting. And yet, for the young couple the plot revolves around, there is an evident conflict of interests: trying their best to do the right thing for the planet, while at the same time feeling a yearning to bring a life of their own into the world, regardless of how it seems to be falling apart around them.
Photos by The Old Vic
Even for those unaware of Claire Foy and Matt Smith’s previous partnership in Netflix’s The Crown, the connection between the two actors is unmistakable. The pair told their characters’ story flawlessy, using physical proximity and distance, fast-paced movement, and moments of stillness to convey the changes in their relationship. Intermittent monologues allowed the audience to focus on, and relate to, each character in their own right at different stages in the storyline, creating the effect of the audience hearing their own inner hopes and fears echoed by Foy and Smith’s characters.
The opening scene of Lungs was not, I feel, representative of the rest of the play. Foy was tasked to deliver what I thought were excessively long, repetitive monologues, expressing her character’s shock at her partner’s suggestion of trying for a baby amid the current climate crisis. Arguably these were likely scripted in order to acclimatise the audience with the couple’s deep-rooted eco-anxiety, but I struggled to comprehend why they needed to be so long, and why they all came from Foy’s character. It seemed that I wasn’t alone in thinking this, either, as I heard a man express exactly the same sentiment as I was whilst leaving the theatre.
Moreover, it seemed to me as if, (most noticeably in the opening scene) Foy’s character was presented as possessing the stereotypically female trait of being irrational, all over the place and impossible to understand, in comparison to her mostly level-headed, rational male significant other. I personally felt really uneasy watching this stereotypical portrayal of a woman, and more uncomfortable still at the chuckles that it generated from the audience.
This facet of Foy’s character may well have been the result of a subconscious belief in such a stereotype. We may, however, also acknowledge that Macmillan potentially portrayed his female character as such in order to encourage empathy towards Matt Smith’s character, with the early long and repetitive monologues from Foy’s character possibly adding credence to this interpretation.
Furthermore, to be fair to Macmillan, Foy’s character does raise characteristically feminist points of contention with her partner, such as her deeming pregnancy to be somewhat of a burden, and her dislike of Smith’s character appearing to see her as an object. It should also be noted that Smith’s character frequently refers to the fact that he reads the books his girlfriend suggests, and that, rather significantly even today, he is the one who suggests they have a baby.
Hence, it seems that Duncan Macmillan was likely just unaware of how his female protagonist may have come across. Nonetheless, it’s important to note that the way in which groups of people are represented in theatre matters, for the arts arguably play a large role in the shaping of cultural norms and how we interact with others; indeed, it is interesting to consider the level of social awareness and responsibility that playwrights may be required to have and bear for their work.
Ultimately, the most striking element of this production of Lungs was Foy and Smith’s seamless performance, which perfectly depicted the initial exuberance of their characters’ relationship, and their subsequent exhaustion with each other. The relationship presented was a highly complex one, which broke down in sync with the earth’s climate. And yet, despite the audience’s heartache at the breakdown of these presumably ‘good people’, there was for me at least a reassurance in the reality being portrayed that, no matter how much we may idealise our partners, wish for ourselves to be perfect partners and dream of perfect circumstances, the truth is that no one can measure up to such expectations, and many of us would do well to realise this. As is noted towards the end of the play, we must do the best with what we have—and the same applies for our climate crisis.
Lungs is on at the Old Vic until Saturday 9th November and tickets are available here.
Edited by Alexia McDonald, Head Digital Editor