Theatre, Drama
3 out of 5 stars
A promo shot for Lungs at Melbourne Theatre Company
Photograph: Jeff Busby

Putting procreation through the wringer

The end of the world may not be nigh, but it is confirmed. How much that concerns us depends on our personalities, our inclinations both spiritual and moral. Perhaps most importantly, it depends on our personal circumstances. Environmental guilt – that sensation that, no matter what we do, we are ruining the planet – is largely an affluent Western affliction. We worry because we can.

In Duncan Macmillan’s play Lungs, the central couple fret a lot about the environmental impact of having a child. They fret about overpopulation. They fret about carbon imprints. In fact, fretting is this play’s raison d’être, and it makes for a funny, if somewhat fractured, night in the theatre. 

Kate Atkinson and Bert LaBonté play the woman and man, and it is both significant and problematic that neither are named. There is a certain lack of specificity that distances us from them. The play opens in Ikea, that very definition of a generic space, that holding pattern of domesticity. He shocks her by suggesting they have a baby, and we spend the next hour and a half both having and not having that baby.

Atkinson is very good as the spiky and frustrated woman, her seething animosity and existential angst peeping through a brittle mask of reason and affability. LaBonté is also fine as the insouciant man, although his almost flippant naturalism sometimes slows the pacing and lowers the stakes. They aren’t exactly unconvincing as a couple, but they don’t pop and fizz either.

Clare Watson negotiates the tricky, rapid-fire scene changes with considerable skill; time is often telescoped, whole weeks taking place in less than a minute, but confusion never sets in. It’s a very clear, unfussy performance, which makes the play’s arguments seem more coherent than they actually are.

The set [Andrew Bailey] is ingenious. A modular kitchen straight out of Ikea is mounted on a centrifuge that slowly rotates the room. Of course, anything that isn’t attached to the walls goes flying, books and appliances and kitchenware becoming a churned pile of junk by the end. It’s a neat metaphor for a sliding world. It’s just a pity the actors have to perform in front of it, rather than in it. Now, THAT would have been daring.

As it stands, Lungs is an intriguing, if incomplete, investigation into current anxiety over the state of the planet and our culpability within it. The woman variously describes herself as a house, an ecosystem and a planet, as if the very idea of a domestic sphere has become a global consideration.

By: Tim Byrne


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