Having not seen a live show since 11 March, rather than grab a haircut or book a table at a pub I thought I’d make my lockdown easing day treat a visit to a theatre. Granted it wasn’t an actual visit (you can watch a film, ride a rollercoaster or go out for a meal now but you can’t experience anything staged – oh no) but it was the nearest I’d managed to come so far. For this was the production of Lungs live streamed from the actual stage of the Old Vic with real actors in real time as part of its In Camera project.
Tuning in was straightforward (though I could have done with one or two fewer emails from the theatre/Zoom reminding me what I had to do) and the connection held throughout so that was a bonus. There was plenty of onscreen information but it might have been useful to give viewers a running time and explain there was no interval – there’s no hitting the pause button in this scenario. A brief introduction by director Matthew Warchus set the context and reminded us about the rules under which this new version of the play was constructed. Essentially, we were about to watch a late stage rehearsal rather than a full-on production with no lighting changes and a simplified set. Actually, the writer Duncan Macmillan stipulates “there is no scenery, no furniture, no props and no mime. There are no costume changes. Light and sound should not be used to indicate a change in time or place”. So that’s lucky then!
On the surface the play is a simple domestic drama about a couple contemplating parenthood which was a hit at the Old Vic just nine months ago (how appropriate); it is also an examination of environmentalism and Extinction Rebellion was fresh on everyone’s minds at the time. Although other recent events have tended to dominate, the arguments raised are still very pertinent. The characters, simply dubbed W and M, are a couple who decide to have a child but are clearly scared by what it means to bring one into the world at this present time. Thus, their decision is fraught with intellectual traps as they seek to justify their decision and reassure themselves that they are doing the right thing. Over the course of several months we follow the ebb and flow of their relationship as they muse, bicker, argue, fall out, make up, express their concerns and analyse their feelings.
W is Claire Foy, a dungareed PhD student who sets the pace of the relationship and drives their decision making, while sometimes still expecting her partner to live up to a traditional male role. M is Matt Smith, a T-shirted and trainered sometime musician who tries to embrace the new man ideal but can be confused by what this all means.
The two never leave the stage and provide some electric moments together coming across as a genuine couple whose futures are bound up in each other. There are moments in this socially distanced production when it is clear the actors are longing to make physical contact but by and large staying apart does work and as they circle each other at opposite points on the stage in a kind of dance, Foy and Smith seems to have found a new way of interacting at a distance. On screen they are largely shown as separate entities in their own “boxes” and sometimes the framing of these is used to bring them closer together than they actually are.
The play is well constructed and there are some cracking exchanges of dialogue which move the play along at a fast pace. Scenes overlap so one character suggests breakfast and then without pause they have already eaten it. Again, this makes for speed and economy in writing and performing. As the play progresses these almost filmic jump cuts elongate in time so that seconds, become hours, become months. In the last section the script takes us forward across years at a time as we see the repercussions of the couple’s decisions play out. This has been criticised as cliched, but I thought it was extremely effective; it put me in mind of the heart breaking last ten minutes of TV show Six Feet Under.
So, is the experience of the “new normal” a replacement? Of course it’s not. The lack of a live audience and the consequent inability of the actors to directly connect makes watching the play into something less than it should truly be. And there still seems to be work to be done on the technical side. Zoom has a bit of trouble with rapid movement for instance and, especially at the start of the play, the actors’ mouths were horribly out of synch with the words that they were saying. So, no, it is not a replacement; but it is a substitute and probably the best that can be hoped for in the current climate. I’m increasingly taking the view that there is little point in bemoaning this style of presentation as inadequate or somehow “lesser”. If we don’t support the industry in its endeavours to find a “new normal” then the danger is there will be no butterfly to emerge from its chrysalis when we get to the other side. To quote Samuel Johnson “the wonder is not that it is done well, but that it is done at all”.