A few weeks into the lockdown and Mrs Chrisparkle and I were wondering what theatres could do to raise some money whilst still providing an artistic reward for our cash. Donating to your favourite local theatre is obviously a good move if you can afford it, but times are hard and there’s only so much anyone can do. There have been dozens of streamed broadcasts of recordings of successful shows transmitted over the airways during the lockdown which are well worth watching and making a donation for the privilege of doing so. But what about live performance, with all its risks, electricity, surprises and energy? A recorded performance can be a great reminder of a memorable show but it’s not quite the same as The Real Thing.
A few weeks further into lockdown, and, lo and behold, the Old Vic had the brilliant idea of presenting a play on their iconic stage, live alive-o, for which theatregoers could buy tickets in the usual way and then watch the live performance at home via Zoom (who’d heard of zoom four months ago?) recreating the genuine theatre experience as closely as possible without actually having to endanger ourselves by breaking social distancing. I knew hardly anything about the show but decided that buying a ticket had to be worth a try.
And so it was that last night we watched Lungs, Duncan Macmillan’s two-hander that enjoyed a successful run at the Old Vic last year, with new life breathed into it in this socially-distanced version with no set, hardly any crew and just a couple of camera operators. But the questions to be faced were: a) how would this work, b) would the connection be reliable, and c) could this be the short-term future for live performance? Answers: a) like a dream, b) absolutely, and c) YES! The Old Vic are on to an absolute winner with this idea.
To be fair, we’d probably have enjoyed it more if I’d remembered that I’d booked for last night’s performance and not next Friday’s, as I had erroneously written in my diary. Too much lockdown can make the brain go flabby, obvs. Fortunately, the Old Vic sent an email alert reminding us that the show was starting soon, and Mrs C was able to delay our evening meal until after the show finished. Thus, we made it to the virtual theatre with ten minutes to spare. As I was underprepared I couldn’t work out how to turn off the subtitles, so we had to watch the play with them on, not that that was a particular problem – but I’ll know for next time.
Lungs is a snappy, pacey series of dialogues between Matt Smith’s Him and Claire Foy’s Her. Starting with them bickering in the aisles of a virtual IKEA, you can tell their relationship is never going to be a calm affair. Young, idealistic types who self-congratulate that they give to charity and watch subtitled films, they fret about the repercussions of starting a family to the detriment of the planet, but decide to go for it anyway. However, the route towards having a baby is often fraught with difficulty and sadness, and the play beautifully – and sometimes agonisingly – takes us on their torturous journey to parenthood. But it’s not just about infertility problems – in fact, it isn’t about infertility at all – it takes a much broader look at all the little things that can influence a relationship. I’ll say no more, but it contains a number of what J B Priestley would have called Difficult Corners.
Technically, it’s deceptively simple. One camera on her, one on him, placed side by side on the screen, which gives a more dynamic and intimate presentation than just simply showing the whole stage all the time. The camera work was excellent, by the way, as was the sound, and everything was perfectly lit, so great work by all the tech people. Before it starts, the sounds of audience murmuring, five-minute bells, and backstage announcements put you in the mindset of this being a Proper Play in a Proper Theatre.
The two performances are superb, interlocking and overtalking with passion, enthusiasm, anger and as many other emotions as you can imagine. Scenes merge into each other with scarcely a pause for breath (hence the need for the Lungs in the title) but it’s performed with immaculate clarity and the lack of set is a positive bonus in that there’s nothing to get in the way of the storytelling. Matthew Warchus’ direction is all about the verbal choreography between the two, almost balletic in its accuracy and balance. Mr Smith and Ms Foy work together incredibly well, each making the most of their roles’ inconsistencies and fallibilities to present two genuinely well-meaning people who hop from car-crash to success and then back again. In these times of heightened sensitivity, there are plenty of occasions when you might feel a little moisture in the eyes.
Whilst we can’t have the real thing, this for sure is the best next option. Personally, I’d be really happy to pay the going rate to keep theatres supported if they could put COVID-compatible performances together like this. If you feel the same, visit the Old Vic website and book yourself tickets. Keep strong team, we can do this!