Duncan Macmillan’s 2011 Lungs opens with a young woman–man couple in Ikea talking about having a baby, and a feeling of safe, well-made-play-for-those-who-live in Windsor/Yarraville/Northcote predictability settles. Settles for a few breaths! This new MTC production brings a life, tension and emotional rhythm to the text that’s like breathing in the first warm air of a beachside spring and ignoring the hint of rotting fish.
There’s little unexpected in the story. The “Shall we have a baby?” not-talking-about-it talk continues for 80 minutes, but covers years without a break or change of costume or place. Once Clare Watson’s super-tight direction brings the couple out of the box into the empty space, they can be anywhere. And with Kate Davis’s neutral costumes, which say everything and suit bath sex to polite coffee in Starbucks, it’s so easy to see the world and the people though our own experiences.
Kate Atkinson and Bert La Bonte bring an honesty and warmth to their character’s imperfections. Despite their inevitable trajectory and heard-before conversations about carbon footprints versus the capacity to love, they take their performances beyond the words into the empty space of what’s hiding in the words. Under Watson’s lead, Lungs finds its truth in the subtext, which lets us want them to work it out and live in impossible Ikea-nice world where everything fits.
And all of this happens as the set dictates the tension and rhythm of the text, without the actors ever acknowledging what’s going on behind them.
Andrew Bailey’s design (with Richard Vabre’s lighting and Russell Goldsmith’s sound) is a literal metaphor for the emotional upheaval of the characters and for the structure of the text. It seems so obvious that there had to be a moment of genius in its inspiration. Beginning in a showroom-perfect apartment that looks like every other white-box apartment loudly appearing in Melbourne’s suburbs – like the one I live in – its square and surrounding circle hints at the dimensions of Michelangelo’s too-perfect Vitruvian Man, but its perfection is brief.
At first, you notice that it’s not really square. Then books begin to lean on their shelves. With imperceptible movement, the tension of wondering how far it can rotate before it’s too far underscores the tension of a relationship where there has to be a too-far moment and going back is impossible.
With inseparable design, performance and direction, Lungs is a reminder that a well-made middle class play can be far from safe.