The woman and man who make up the entire cast of Duncan Macmillan’s “Lungs”, which airs in a beautifully acted (and socially estranged) live production of the Old Vic Theater in London, are people who rarely think before speaking. Feelings — big, sloppy, mixed, unedited, self-incriminating — spill like the contents of foamy beer mugs on a wobbly tray.
Claire Foy and Matt Smith play this nameless couple, romantic couples who probably shouldn’t be together. As I watched them break and reassemble each other’s hearts with seemingly so spontaneous fervor, I thought it would be a relief to them after so much time together at Buckingham Palace.
Foy and Smith are best known these days for playing another group of less demonstrative partners who have definite and highly recognizable names: Queen Elizabeth II and her consort, Prince Philip, whom they exquisitely embodied in the first two seasons of “The Crown. ” the popular Netflix series about life among the Windsor. For that royal couple, emotions were something that needed to be controlled or manifested more discreetly.
Nonetheless, these artists were skilled enough to allow us to feel the discomfort, doubt, and resentment below the surface of their stoic characters. I am pleased to report that Foy and Smith are equally adept at delivering such ambivalence, common to almost all long, intimate relationships, at high volume and at the same speed. Occupying a dark and empty stage that feels as vast as an endless night, they convey this complexity with a delicacy and clarity suitable for both probing close-ups and long shots that suggest what the view from the balcony of the Old Vic would look like.
Of course, no one is sitting on the balcony as Foy and Smith collapse decades of love and heartbreak in 90 minutes of scenic time. Like most theaters in England, the 202-year-old Old Vic has been dark since the pandemic closed in March. This production of “Lungs”, staged by Old Vic’s artistic director, Matthew Warchus, is the inaugural offering of the series of live performances Old Vic: In Camera, which tries to approximate the feelings of being in that theater, in the audience, in the present tense.
This means that the show is preceded by the murmur associated with crowded houses before the time of the curtain, a noise contradicted by the image of a painfully empty seat extension. And since new income is essential to the survival of the Old Vic, theater goers are asked to pay West End ticket prices to watch, from £ 20 to £ 65. (That’s about $ 25 to $ 80). The show will air until July 4, although most performances, which are reserved to reflect the theater’s normal capacity, are sold out.
For the record, I paid my ticket, and I won’t spend it, and yes, I think it was a good value. This is partly for nostalgic reasons. I love the Old Vic, the birthplace of the last show I saw on Broadway, “Girl From the North Country,” and I hope it survives this crisis. And you should have seen this production of “Lungs,” which had been performed at the Old Vic last fall, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this spring.
But, as Warchus and his accomplished technical team recognized, “Lungs” also turns out to be natural for the Zoom format and the restrictions of the pandemic era. This may not be immediately apparent. Macmillan’s script, which premiered in 2011 at the Studio Theater in Washington, DC, feels almost annoying and conventional when it begins.
One couple, shopping at Ikea, started what one identifies as a discussion and the other as a conversation about whether they should have a baby. However, it is defined, it is a discussion that I have been asked to listen to too many times, in sitcoms, movies and novels.
Also, this particular pair is very white, very handsome, and comfortably middle-class, with artistic-slash-intellectual accents. (He is a musician, she is a candidate for the doctorate). Is this convulsive chapter in world history really the time for a prolonged dialogue by a couple about the existential and moral implications of childbirth?
However, Macmillan (“People, Places, and Things”) is a sentimentalist with a knack for lending cosmic context and psychological texture to seemingly slippery banalities. He and the “Lungs” characters know that we might find them easy to dismiss.
“We are good people, right?” they keep asking anxiously. Maybe not; they are aware of the class and even racist tendencies that sporadically filter into their conversation. Also, what is good? What is evil (She points out that most people believe they are good, even Hitler and Simon Cowell).
Both are products of a time of crippling self-awareness, in which every life choice must be examined under a microscope. They cannot turn on a water faucet without worrying about its effects in an environmentally besieged world. As for the impact of having a baby, that’s amazing, and he’s even done the math to calculate the carbon footprint it would leave.
As you will have deduced, she is the most talkative and analytical. He is confused, annoyed, and enthralled by her. It cannot be denied that there is a warm chemistry in their differences. They look good.
Except they are never allowed to fully fit in, even when they are making love. Macmillan’s script is written as a series of fragments in time (spoiler: the life of a relationship), without traditional segues. It is human existence as a mixture of fast-moving moments.
Although its closeness is palpable, complete and total connection is impossible. “I feel like you’re standing behind a wall, just this sheet of glass, and I can’t reach you,” he says. It is a fear that echoes in the ever-changing but impassable physical distance between them, which we see in distant shots. When they cross the stage, it is as if they were two planets, bordering the perigee, on different paths.
In Zoom’s close-up, where they’re confined to separate frames, they seem especially lonely because Foy and Smith’s faces are readable maps of the contrasting ways their characters think. Although they talk a lot, especially her, it is her silence that continues to resonate, with the desire to know, really to know another person.
Many of us have never been more aware of that longing, with its insistent pain and hope, than during these pandemic months. The final image of the work confirms that there is a touch of divinity in this noble and useless aspiration. See it and cry.