‘We’re good people, right?’
This refrain plagues the characters in Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs, the MTC’s latest production playing now at the Arts Centre. Starring Bert LaBonté (Birdland, The Mountaintop) and Kate Atkinson (Wentworth, SeaChange) as a man and woman in a monogamous relationship, Macmillan’s script begins with a conversation in Ikea about having a baby which spirals into innumerable conflicts.
In an interview, Macmillan said he took advice from British playwright Edward Bond, who said that ‘Good dramatists … never solve the problem.’ Believing playwriting to be ‘live decision making’, Macmillan expresses these ideas about theatre in raw form. There are no supporting actors, no props or costumes and scene changes are only indicated by movement and Richard Vabre’s skilful lighting design. The play uses a minimalist aesthetic to express big ideas about childbirth, climate change, euthanasia and eugenics, all born out of relationship quarrels.
In its original sell out runs in Berlin, New York and London, this bare aesthetic was a requirement for each production. The MTC’s production, directed by Clare Watson, includes a remarkable set piece which turns out to be the best thing in the play.
A kitchen interior sits at the back of the stage, which the actors dawdle around in, washing dishes and placing flowers on the table. When the dialogue begins, LaBonté and Atkinson sit on the steps and discuss the reality of having a baby. It becomes apparent that they’re trying to hold themselves in place, drifting to one side of the staircase. Books begin to slide off shelves, the flowers slip from the table, an Ikea-style lamp threatens to drop and unplug itself.
Suspended on an axis, the kitchen is gradually completing a cartwheel. This ingenious piece (from set designer Andrew Bailey) complements the dramatic moments in the dialogue. LaBonté’s silence towards Atkinson’s pregnancy announcement is filled with a thunderous crash as the rubbish bin falls from floor to roof; the sponge, suspended on a chain, hangs in the dead space like a pendulum as the play hurtles towards a devastating conclusion. Its own personal doomsday clock, the house’s rotation counts down to a catastrophe—there couldn’t be a more perfect accompaniment to the weighty discussions.
LaBonté brings a laconic charm to his character who, in the beginning, is making a living playing gigs and working in a record store. Even though he’s the one who brings up the decision to have a baby, he hardly seems prepared for the responsibility. Sagging his shoulders and letting his arms droop, LaBonté speaks about a quarter of the dialogue his partner does and at half the speed.
As the highly strung PhD candidate, Atkinson is at odds with her character. She’s clearly an established comedic performer, playing a jittery and neurotic Woody Allen-type. She possesses great comedic delivery, bringing awkward honesty to lines like: ‘You get that “porno look” in your eyes’, referring to LaBonté’s sex face, and she showcases keen parodic sensibility trying to justify political awareness by saying, ‘We vote below the line.’
But, with all its funny parts, Lungs isn’t a comedy. It deals with devastating emotional trauma and severed partnerships. In these moments, Atkinson can’t dial down the skittishness, ultimately delivering a rather one-note interpretation of a complexly written character. As a result, the chemistry suffers. You want these two to express something visceral, to convey years of history in physical gestures, but aside from some well-timed banter, it’s hard to believe that the characters have known each other longer than a few weeks.
While Macmillan is clearly a talented writer, he leans heavily on familiar tropes to push the plot along. It would be a shame to spoil anything here, but some story turns are ripped straight out of the romantic comedy playbook: break ups happen for an all-too-familiar reason, getting back together is a rushed formality and a lot of Atkinson’s fears about pregnancy don’t expand her character—they’re just clichés. Instead of experimenting with heterosexual relationship tropes and masculine/feminine dynamics, Macmillan is relying on what audiences have already seen to nudge his story to a problem solving end.
Efficiently directed and creatively staged, the MTC’s Lungs is a funny and entertaining show that wants to be more memorable than it probably will be. Some critics have called Lungs a ‘breath of fresh air’ but predictable plot points and unconvincing chemistry leave the air in this production tasting a little recirculated.