When actress Claire Foy was sent a copy of Duncan Macmillan’s acclaimed play Lungs, “I absolutely loved it,” she remembers. “I thought it was extraordinary. But at the time, I’d been working quite a lot, and I wasn’t sure about possibly doing this really intense play with an actor I’d never met before.”
Conveniently, Foy didn’t have to worry: She wound up cast in a London staging of Lungs, a two-person play tracing an intimate, complex relationship in the context of an increasingly troubled world. And as luck would have it, she was starring opposite fellow stage and screen veteran Matt Smith, who, in 2016 and 2017, played the young Prince Philip to Foy’s Queen Elizabeth II in Netflix’s massively popular series The Crown.
Following an acclaimed run at the Old Vic, that production is now set to arrive at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on March 25 for a limited time. And its stars are both excited to introduce New York audiences to what Smith stresses are “completely different characters, in a completely different story” — one that traces M and W, as their characters are named, as they grapple with a series of decisions and twists, with larger issues such as climate change looming over them.
Prominent among the decisions is whether to have a child under such circumstances. Foy notes that when she had her daughter five years ago, “I certainly wasn’t thinking about the environmental impact. But now, that’s something we all have to consider.” She adds that Macmillan is “incredibly good at writing women. He’s observed women his whole life and has an incredibly good understanding, which really touched me. So often in drama you’re playing people under extreme or unique circumstances, but these are two people like most people their age. If it seems like they’re having a middle-class, first-world conversation, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth representing.”
Foy muses that some who have seen Lungs have felt “like we planted a camera in their house and recorded them. You see people of a certain age, the problems they’re dealing with.” At the same time, “the play moves through time so that their relationship is condensed into an hour and a half, and people of different generations have felt like they’re seeing their lives condensed. There have been a lot of very emotional responses.”
Smith confirms this, recalling one performance at the Old Vic. “At one moment, the audience got very vocal. The whole house did—and that is very rare for an English audience,” he says. “I’m keen to see if the same thing happens in the same way in New York.”
Both actors have found the intensity and intimacy of Lungs challenging and inspiring. “It’s only the two of you up there,” notes Smith, adding that the play calls for “no set, nothing to sit on, no mime, no props, no sound design, and barely any lighting design. The audience and the actors are forced to push the idea of theatricality.”
That makes the professional chemistry and the level of trust that Foy and Smith have developed in recent years particularly useful. “Matt and I are really good friends,” says Foy. Entering rehearsals for the play, “we already knew what our tastes were and where we stood on things and how we like to work, and we could be honest with each other about everything. When you only have three weeks to rehearse, knowing that you don’t have to build that camaraderie eliminates a big hurdle.”
Smith says of Foy, “She’s the bee’s knees, as they say. There’s a wonderful quality and generosity to her, and I feel privileged to get to be alongside an actress of that magnitude, and also alongside my friend.”
The performers are equally bullish on their director and fellow Brit Matthew Warchus, highly praised for his work on both sides of the Atlantic. Though neither had worked with him previously, Smith says, “We’d talked about a number of different plays. He’s a great creative presence, and a man of depth and honesty.” Foy found Warchus “very patient and very kind, and very, very clever. He said early on that he wouldn’t have much of a job to do, but he very subtly helped shape the play and guide it.”
Her fondness and respect for Warchus and Smith notwithstanding, Foy admits she didn’t know if she’d “be able to work together again this soon” with the latter. “Our dynamics in The Crown are quite well known. But acting is acting, really. And it’s been amazing to see how people respond to this play.”
Smith, who is making his New York stage debut in Lungs, is intent that such enthusiasm will continue. The city “has a great history and theatrical culture, with some of the best actors and playwrights,” he says. “It’s given us so many wonderful moments, and I’m hoping that we can contribute to that.”
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