“Be transfixed and you will be transported” is an MTC pledge to theatre-goers in their 2016 Season Launch, and with the Australian premiere of Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs, they’ve certainly fulfilled that promise.
The British playwright has expressed the view, “that theatre at its best cuts through the noise of everything else that’s competing for our attention and gives our empathy and imagination a work out.”
This two-person play is challenging, heartbreaking and thought provoking – and I completely understand why it’s been both a critical and commercial success, with sell-out seasons in London, New York and Berlin.
The text, aptly described by its publisher, as an “off kilter love story” opens with the couple in Ikea, where a man tentatively suggests to his partner that they should start a family. What begins in-store, and then continues on for months are excruciating conversations peppered with frustration, lust, anger, resentment, confusion and the F word.
In fact, Macmillan has said that Lungs “in some ways, came out of the anxieties I had about turning thirty and moving on to the next part of my life. Trying to take more personal responsibility…” and cites his “motivation is to say something that isn’t being said.” A journalist in the UK Guardian, even commented on Macmillan’s speech patterns, saying, “that his conversations were punctuated moments of thoughtful anxious self awareness... pausing mid thought and picking apart his own statements as soon as he makes them.” Very much like the characters in Lungs, in particular, Kate Atkinson’s.
The play is brutally honest and so relevant. It’s about relationships. Relationships between real people, and our (collective) relationship with the environment, and how we affect it.
As a playwright, he gets inside their heads, and ours, with this nagging dilemma/ assertion that they’re “good people” because they “read books, watch foreign films, support fair trade, shop locally, recycle…” and so effectively and effortlessly, communicates this to the audience through his naturalistic dialogue, so rich with imagery and humour.
These all-consuming, awkward conversations, that we are all so uncomfortably familiar with, are brilliantly delivered by Kate Atkinson and Bert LaBonté in what are truly stellar performances. Perfectly cast, they are so utterly convincing as a couple: their facial expressions and body language, mannerisms and intonation, combined with the emotional & physical intimacy they portray on stage, is mesmerising (more so as the relationship begins to haemorrhage).
The lines in the opening scene are seductive and it is so fitting to have the action set in Ikea: it’s notoriously confronting for indecisive people, but more importantly, it prides itself on its vision of nature and home, and its interior design is supposedly associated with eco-friendly simplicity, all of which segues nicely into the couple’s perception that they are “good people.”
And of course, allows Macmillan to beautifully introduce the humour by broaching the subject in such a contrived environment.
All this, plus the manner in which he addresses the passing of time, demonstrates his incredible efficiency and skill as a playwright.
The production team must be congratulated – Andrew Bailey for his extremely clever set design – a visual metaphor for the changing state of the relationship, Richard Vabre (lighting) for the anguish he manages to convey and Russell Goldsmith (composer & sound design).
I was gobsmacked. Lungs as a work of art is authentic – we, the audience see ourselves reflected on stage; maybe we’re not so eloquent, but we are definitely there, in one guise or another.
Melbourne Theatre Company presents
by Duncan Macmillan
Director Clare Watson
Venue: Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio
Dates: 5 February – 19 March 2016
Bookings: 03 8688 0800 | mtc.com.au