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Lungs, Reactions

Lungs, 21st Oct 2012. Paynes Plough.

Directed by Richard Wilson
W played by Kate O'Flynn
M played by Alistair Cope

Playwright Duncan MacMillan directs that Lungs be played on a bare set with no help from scenery furniture or props. The Roundabout - an economical 'wooden O' - provides the perfect set for the climate-change play seeking to be unburdened by extraneous grammes of CO2, all the better to contemplate the hypothetical baby weighing in in tonnage equivalent to the Eiffel Tower. In this short, intense, complex play scales shift constantly between the universal and the personal, the telescopic and the microscopic. At one moment we see the unnamed female protagonist, W, overwhelmed by the idea of 'the purpose of life itself' evoked by the idea of the baby, and, later, overwhelmed by a sense of a love for M so great that 'the world's not there it's just us and we're the whole fucking universe'. Universal or not, we never lose sight of the smallness of human nature for W and M bicker constantly, ever at cross-purposes.

The idea of having a family (introduced by M in the Ikea queue and car park, of all places) unleashes a debate about a hypothetical baby and its hypothetical impact on the planet offset by hypothetical forest-planting; and another about hypothetically not having babies because it's better for the planet. A miscarriage slams M and W right back into the reality of being human with a strong dose of anguish too deep to cope with. Life is what happens whilst human beings make other plans and the life force neither M nor W reckon with produces the accidental baby, the wrecked relationships, the destruction of the forests M did, after all, manage to plant. At the end we find W praying by M's grave, earth to earth and dust to dust on the ruined, ash-covered planet.

Dealing with an 'enormous' topic the play nevertheless keeps its audience close to planet earth through its unerringly accurate depiction of human beings falling in and out of love. In this well-crafted script we recognise the clumsy man putting his foot in it with unerring aim time and again as she constantly shifts the emotional goal posts, moved by hormones beyond her control. In the intimate space of the Roundabout we are close enough to see the first tear fall as W loses the baby; to see, up close and personal, the tear-stained strained face of W (Kate O'Flynn) as she fights to come to grips with what has happened; and the harsh implacable gaze she turns on the utterly bemused M (Alistair Cope) as he fails, until the very last moment, to come to grips with their relationship and say what she needs to hear.

Director Richard Wilson brings two key strengths to this play - a deep understanding of comic timing and long experience in responding to cues embedded in play scripts. This play is full of funny moments, enjoyed to the full by the audience on the evidence of chuckles, giggles and guffaws. Even more impressive was the ease with which we all became almost-zero-carbon time travellers, thanks to an agile production that rises to the challenge of skipping through years in a single breath.

Lungs, Radio 3, 24 March 2013

The author's insistence on a minimum of (resource-hungry) props combined with Paines Plough's ecological wooden O is perfectly designed to drive home the message that, even when we are watching a play in a production that does the minimum to implicate the audience in resource profligacy, we cannot help contributing to rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

In the radio production, this visual impact of the set is lost, but it is replaced by something arguably even more powerful, for lungs (the real thing) are suddenly centre stage. The audience can hear every breath taken by the actors, whether a simple drawing of breath to speak, more breath in the voice as excitement levels rise, a shocked gasp, a change in breathing patterns as the emotional tempo hots up, or the sound of someone straining to weep quietly. Throughout this audio production, it is unlikely anyone is unaware of their own respiratory physiology. Thus with or without other auditory props, this play works perfectly on the radio, and the medium reinforces the climate change message. As Richard Bean so aptly suggested in another play, 'If you want to be green, hold your breath'.

Director Richard Wilson's decision to add auditory props at first seems to run counter to Duncan MacMillan's wish (expressed in the stage directions in the published play text) for a bare set, but not for long. The irony introduced by these sounds is worth their weight in CO2. In the scene in which W reacts in shock to the idea of having a baby, "it's like you've punched me in the face then asked me a maths question" (p. 29), the noise of a car engine is faintly audible. They may worry about giving birth to an Eiffel Tower's worth of CO2, but somehow fossil fuels from the car exhaust are forgotten. Time and time again, the small sounds that bring the listener right into the room with the protagonists reinforce this theme. When they are in bed, talking and talking, every gesture is audible because we can hear the quilt moving with them (p. 40). In the kitchen, W offers to make coffee, and we hear furniture and and crockery. In one memorable scene M and W talk about how lucky the child will be to have parents who (aside from loving 'it' very much) will do all the right things such as recycling, or not leaving the tap running when they brush their teeth, but as they talk they see nothing strange about indulging in a hot bath, and the sound of running water reinforces the irony for the listener.

Later, M leaves the tap running to help W use a testing kit to see whether her strange mood is something to do with being pregnant.

M Sorry. Shouldn't keep it running like this.

W Can we not think of the planet for one second?

This, of course, is exactly the point. They never stop talking about the planet and yet never really seem to think about it. Thus, the auditory props introduced by the Director are the perfect counterpoint to MacMillan's unerringly accurate depiction of human behaviour. They remind the listener of the trail of material possessions we carry with us through life, the gallons of water we unthinkingly use, as we play our part in the consumer society, even as we worry about climate change.