The woman and man who make up the entire cast of Duncan Macmillan’s “Lungs,” which is streaming in a beautifully acted (and socially distanced) live production from London’s Old Vic Theater, are people who seldom think before they talk. Feelings — big, sloppy, mixed, unedited, self-incriminating feelings — slosh out of them like the contents of overfilled, foaming beer mugs on a wobbly tray.
This nameless couple, longtime romantic partners who probably shouldn’t be yet have to be together, are portrayed by Claire Foy and Matt Smith. As I watched them break and reassemble each other’s hearts with such seemingly spontaneous fervor, I thought what a relief it must be for them after all that bottled-up time together in Buckingham Palace.
Foy and Smith are best known these days for playing another, less demonstrative set of partners who have definite, very recognizable names: Queen Elizabeth II and her consort, Prince Philip, whom they embodied exquisitely in the first two seasons of “The Crown,” the popular Netflix series about life among the Windsors. For that royal pair, emotions were something to be kept in check or manifested most discreetly.
Nonetheless, these performers were skilled enough to let us sense the discomfort, doubt and resentment beneath the surface of their stoical characters. I am happy to report that Foy and Smith are equally adept at delivering such ambivalence, common to nearly all long and intimate relationships, at high volume and in equally high gear. Occupying a dark and empty stage that feels as vast as an endless night, they transmit this complexity with a delicacy and clarity well suited both to probing close-ups and to long shots that suggest what the view might be like from the Old Vic balcony.
Of course, there is no one sitting in the balcony as Foy and Smith collapse decades of love and angst into 90 minutes of stage time. Like most theaters in England, the 202-year-old Old Vic has been dark since the pandemic lockdown began in March. This production of “Lungs,” staged by the Old Vic’s artistic director, Matthew Warchus, is the maiden offering of the Old Vic: In Camera series of live performances, which try 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 murmuring sound associated with packed houses before curtain time, a noise contradicted by the image of an achingly empty expanse of seats. And since new income is essential to the survival of the Old Vic, theatergoers are asked to pay West End ticket prices to watch, from 20 to 65 pounds. (That’s approximately $25 to $80.) The show streams through July 4, though most performances — which are booked to reflect the theater’s normal capacity — are sold out.
For the record, I paid for my ticket, and I won’t be expensing it, and yes, I believe it was 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 dearly hope it survives this crisis. And I was to have seen this production of “Lungs,” which had been staged at the Old Vic last fall, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this spring.
But as reconceived by Warchus and his accomplished technical team, “Lungs” also turns out to be a natural for the Zoom format and the restrictions of the pandemic age. This might not be immediately apparent. Macmillan’s script, which premiered in 2011 at the Studio Theater in Washington, D.C., feels almost annoyingly slight and conventional when it begins.
A couple, shopping at Ikea, have begun what one identifies as an argument and the other as a conversation about whether they should have a baby. However it’s defined, it is a discussion I have been asked to listen to too many times — in sitcoms, movies and novels.
What’s more, this particular pair is very white, very good-looking and comfortably middle class, with arty-slash-intellectual accents. (He’s a musician, she’s a doctoral candidate.) Is this convulsive chapter in world history really the time for a drawn-out dialogue by such a pair on the existential and moral implications of childbirth?
Yet Macmillan (“People, Places & Things”) is a probing sentimentalist with a gift for lending cosmic context and psychological texture to ostensibly slick banalities. He, and the characters in “Lungs,” know that we might find them easy to dismiss.
“We’re good people, right?” they keep asking each other anxiously. Maybe not; they’re aware of classist and even racist tendencies that sporadically seep into their conversation. Besides, what is good? What’s evil? (She points out that most people believe that they are good, even Hitler and Simon Cowell.)
They are both products of an age of paralyzing self-consciousness, in which every life choice must be examined through a microscope. They can’t turn on a water tap without worrying about its effects on an environmentally beleaguered world. As for the impact of having a baby, that’s staggering, and she has even done the math to calculate the carbon footprint it would leave.
As you may have gathered, she is the more loquacious and analytical. He is confused, annoyed and enraptured by her. There’s no denying that there’s a warming chemistry in their differences. They are a good fit.
Except that they’re never allowed to fit together entirely, not even when they’re making love. Macmillan’s script is written as a series of fragments in time (spoiler: a relationship’s lifetime), without traditional segues. It’s human existence as a mix tape of moments on fast forward.
While their 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’s a fear that’s echoed in the ever-shifting but unbridgeable physical distance between them, which we see in the long shots. When they pass each other onstage, it’s as if they were two planets, skirting perigee, on different trajectories.
In Zoom close-up, in which they’re confined to separate frames, they seem especially alone because Foy’s and Smith’s faces are such legible maps to the contrasting ways their characters think. Though they talk a lot — her, especially — it’s their silence that keeps resonating, with the desire to know, to truly know another person.
Many of us have never been more aware of that longing, with its insistent pain and hope, than during these months of pandemic. That there’s a touch of divinity in this noble, futile aspiration is confirmed by the play’s final image. See it and weep.