When Duncan Macmillan’s play ‘Lungs’ was revived last year by the Old Vic, directed by Matthew Warchus, it was against a backdrop of Extinction Rebellion, global protests, Greta Thunberg and Trumpian denial bullshit. It was timely, in other words. ‘Lungs’, first staged in 2011, features an unnamed couple debating the ethical issues around starting a family and bringing a child into a world that seems to be dying. Now, of course, it has a whole new relevance, so the Old Vic is doing another revival – with Matt Smith and Claire Foy, who starred in the 2019 version – in light of the current crisis. And this one will stream live from the Old Vic’s auditorium.
The theatre’s new In Camera season is a bold departure from recent archive streaming initiatives from the likes of the National Theatre and Shakespeare’s Globe. It’s a proper new season of works that will be performed live (and socially distanced) on the Old Vic’s stage every night to an empty house. The audience at home will be limited to the 1,000 seats of any regular performance, and paying standard ticket prices (£10-£65). The theatre acknowledges that this involves an element of illogicality: ‘Whilst all “seats” offer the same view, we’re asking audiences to give what they can to help support our theatre.’
The programme comes hot on the heels of dire announcements from the UK’s theatres that continued lockdown and social distancing could spell the end for many of them, deprived as they are of their ticket income.
So, ‘Lungs’ is again a great choice. It has two big stars in it, and its striking conceptual bleakness and stark staging are apt not only as comments on lockdown, isolation and fear of infection, but of the nature of theatre itself and its potential demise.
Our review of the 2019 production now seems prescient: ‘It’s right of them to be afraid of the future; the thing is, the future is scarier than it used to be; and the play’s deft final scenes confirm that “Lungs” is serious about being a climate-change drama, without actually going overtly dystopian on our asses. Smith and Foy are always watchable, and “Lungs” is funny throughout. But their performances – hers in particular – grow immeasurably in stature as the short play wears on, as they’re virtually crushed by the world until finally the world pretty much forces them to make a stand against it.’
While pay-per-view plays might not offer anything like the financial returns that our iconic venues need to keep running, this is a reminder that live theatre is an experience like no other. As we concluded last year: ‘“Lungs” isn’t a flat-out masterpiece: but it is a good play about climate change, and I hope this production has a life beyond its current brief stint.’
And that’s a sentiment we should all be applauding right now.
‘Lungs’ is being staged as part of the Old Vic’s In Camera season from Jun 26 to Jul 4. Tickets go on general sale at noon (BST) on Wed Jun 10.
Jez Butterworth’s ‘Jerusalem’ will be back on the London stage in 2021.
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