Wednesday 17 October 2012

Traumas take twice as long

Lungs, Shoreditch Town Hall, London

After Cock, comes Lungs. Duncan MacMillan’s cleverly intricate two-hander shares more than just a corporeal title with Mike Bartlett’s 2009 play. At its heart is the same indecision, the to-ing and fro-ing over a life-changer, and, as in Cock, its characters – both in their late-20s, early-30s – are designated M and W according to their gender. (They can’t be the same people, incidentally: Barlett’s M was decidedly gay – Andrew Scott, not Ben Whishaw.)

What’s more, in Paines Plough’s flat-pack theatre -in-the-round auditorium – an elegantly makeshift Lucy Osborne creation – Richard Wilson’s production employs the same non-natural approach to blocking as James MacDonald did. Its minimal, chess-piece choreography similarly ignores setting for mood and dynamic. Personally, I’d have like it to go the whole hog and completely detach itself from reality’s trappings. By this point, there’s no need to lie down to show that the characters are ‘in bed,’ for example; it’s enough that they speak to each other in a certain way.


Lungs is smart. Real smart.

It manages to be a climate change play, a state-of-a-generation play and a dented rom-com all at once.

It starts with a question – ‘A baby?’ – and doesn’t so much follow a sequence of events as a chain of thoughts. It’s as if MacMillan has zoomed out and plucked only those moments in this couple’s life that can be filed under ‘baby.’ He fast-forwards the irrelevant passages of time, so ‘Goodnight’ is followed by ‘Morning.’ The single conversation seems to dominate their lives, and time seems to expand and contract, much as we actually experience it. Traumas take twice as long.

They’re in IKEA.

When that first question is asked.

They’re in IKEA.

Buying furniture, presumably.

Temporary, affordable, identikit furniture.

Put like that, it sounds the very opposite of a child. But how much is having a child like buying a sofa? In some ways, it’s just another lifestyle accessory to be acquired. One that needs putting together at home. But without an instruction manual – no matter how hard to follow.

M has posed the question. W is taken aback. Her first thought is of the planet. She’s happy to buy some slotted wood – or whatever – shipped over from Sweden, but a baby? That’s another matter. That’s like flying to New York every day for seven years – speaking purely in terms of Carbon footprints: 10,000 tonnes of C02. “That’s the weight of the Eiffel Tower. I’d be giving birth to the Eiffel Tower.”

Plus children have children have children have children.

‘Fuck recycling or electric cars, fuck energy efficient fucking light bulbs…’

They’ve just had the hottest summer and the coldest winter.

The planet is fucked.

W’s a smoker. She might not have been. It would have made no difference to the play’s action; in terms of what happens to her or to M or to them. MacMillan’s title, however, works magic. It makes her smoking, not central, but attention-grabbing, as if it’s always in your periphery vision. And it’s there you find the central metaphor for climate change. W’s lungs undergo the same pollution by accumulation as the planet. One cigarette isn’t going to kill you. One cigarette 20 times a day for 20 years likely will. (Note to self: Stop smoking.)

She says ‘OK’ a lot, W. Kate O’Flynn – who is fantastic, by the way, but I’ll come back to that – says OK rather like Beverley in Abigail’s party. This little rhetorical question. Oh-kay? Or else, it’s decisive: O.K. Never yes. Never no. Certainly not perfect. Never even great. Ok? Ok.

Macmillan shows life to be a process of longshore drift; one that moves bit by bit, carried by currents rather than controlled. That’s what makes his chosen form so clever; he shows us the same conversation on a loop. It’s both inconsequential – in that big leaps of thought are rare – but always leaves a residue that somehow shifts the process on. The rhythm goes this way and that, back and forth like shifting weight between two feet, suspended in a single step.

His diagnosis, really, is of a lack of commitment. They dither and flip-flop. W can’t even commit to her vocabulary, spraying synonyms through single, stuttering sentences. At one point, she can’t decide whether to laugh or cry. Why? Because their reasoning is entirely teleological. There’s the whole climate change thing – in which a baby is calculated in terms of its carbon footprint. Then there are the effects of pregnancy on her body, of a baby on their lifestyle and of being born on the child’s life. It’s one thing to take control of your own life, another to commit someone else to something. Especially something as enormous as life. There are a thousand ‘what ifs’ ahead. ‘They don’t stay small,’ says W, ‘they grow up and become people.’

M and, in particular, W seem terrified of any possible effect, of actively altering the future, and so end up in stasis. The text, which often uses startling language that’s laced with harshness, makes a clever distinction between terrorism and natural disasters. M and W avoid responsibility at all costs. They treat the world as a set of circumstances to be navigated. MacMillan’s smart enough to give us a glimpse into why. (Spoiler alert) W miscarries and, having allowed themselves to imagine and buy into a future, all that evaporates in an afternoon. It’s moments like this that trigger this hell-with-the-future attitude. Better safe than sorry.

As for decisions, there’s heart and there’s head; feeling and reason run throughout MacMillan’s language. Reason calculates the reasons not to have a child, where gut feeling says go ahead. ‘Fuck, if you thought about it,’ W frets, ‘if you really properly thought about it before actually doing it then you’d never ever actually fucking do it…’

And we’re back to smoking. And we’re back to the environment. And we’re back to the lingering effects of the things that feel great. Babies, they’re just another thing.

If I’ve a complaint about Lungs, it’s that I think it veers towards being a male fantasy. Which is odd, given that it’s about babies and gives W much more room for thinking aloud and feelings. But, that’s also it: M’s a bit of a blank canvas: inoffensive, flawed but generally pretty ordinary. I’ve barely mentioned him in all of the above. Yet, W is funny and goofy and angry and all those other things that ‘real women in films’ are like, as antidotes to the perfect foils of usual romantic leads. And ultimately, they get together in the end, and, despite M’s typically masculine slip, he ends up looking like the good guy.

Nonetheless, Kate O’Flynn is fantastic, superb, as W. She has a knack of managing to make everything she does fit the text at a jaunty angle. So she mulls the question of a baby as if brainstorming product names on The Apprentice. She does a double-fist pump on ‘Let’s do it’, like someone agreeing to a charity bungee jump. This distortion carries on into – or rather out of – MacMillan’s language, which regular takes you by surprise; the vocabulary is just as jaunty; it makes you sit up and listen again. Alistair Cope is sympathetic – if a little self-pitying – as M.

But yeah, go. Lungs is great; one of the best new plays I’ve seen in the last year.

Till 27 October 2012


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