Duncan Macmillan
Duncan Macmillan

Duncan Macmillan on the Intimate Conversations in His Play, Lungs

About a dozen years ago, when Duncan Macmillan wrote the foundation for what would become Lungs, the celebrated British playwright and director had not yet become a parent. But the subject was on his mind, as were other pressing matters that he saw as very much related.

“I was approaching 30, and all of these questions were bubbling up,” says Macmillan. “I suppose I was getting to the age where it was no longer possible to blame the previous generation for the state of the world.”

The resulting two-actor, one-act play premiered in 2011, and it enjoyed a new, widely praised revival last year at London’s Old Vic. That production arrives at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on March 25, starring Claire Foy and Matt Smith — famously coupled in recent years as the young Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip on the hit Netflix series The Crown — and directed by Tony Award winner Matthew Warchus. Lungs finds its characters, simply called M and W, grappling with the decision to bring a baby into a world that seems increasingly doomed, environmentally and otherwise, by its human inhabitants.

Macmillan — now 39 and the father of a 5-year-old boy — first conceived the play while trying to craft a larger piece inspired by similar concerns, including climate change, for the Old Vic, an early and enduring supporter of his work. (“Maybe I’ll finish that one in another 12 years,” he quips of the early version.) “I stayed up all night one night and got about three quarters of the way through the plot” for Lungs. Though even after two successful productions, Macmillan notes, “I’m still writing during rehearsals.”

That approach seems apt for an intensely intricate, intimate work. The playwright — whose other credits include People, Places and Things, which ran an acclaimed sold-out run at St. Ann’s Warehouse after premiering at the U.K.’s National Theatre and on the West End, and 1984, an adaptation of the George Orwell novel (written with Robert Ickes) that also transferred from London to Broadway — describes Lungs as “a high-wire act” for a pair of performers.

“All I want to do is get out of the way of the actors,” says Macmillan, whose directions for Lungs indicate that the play should be performed on a bare stage, with no props or costume changes. “I want to write something that allows them to be virtuosic — allows them to be the whole show.”

Macmillan was confident that Smith and Foy would prove up to the task. “I’ve seen them both on stage a lot; Matt used to do readings of mine at the Royal Court. Their speed of thought is so great, and their comedy timing is so great. They have to be present for each other for and make 100 decisions each minute, and they’re listening to each other and responding to each other so well. I find it really thrilling to watch them; it’s like writing a score and knowing that only real good musicians will make it good, and having them.”

The players, Macmillan adds, “really love and respect each other, as actors and as friends. Embarking on this, they knew that they would be with someone who would look after them. They’ve got a sibling dynamic in the rehearsal room where they’ll finish each other’s sentences.” That sense of familiarity and trust is crucial, as there are moments in Lungs, Macmillan notes, “when you feel like eavesdropping on a private conversation. I was worried we might lose some of that intimacy” in a large space, “but somehow, it’s become more amplified.”

Warchus’s input has also been key, Macmillan says: “I’d never met Matthew before, but I was a big admirer. He’s worked with the greats, and he’s so intuitive and collaborative and generous. He’s said that this play is having its moment now.”

Macmillan feels the same way about Lungs. “When I first wrote it, it was deliberately satirical; it seemed comedic that we would be thinking of having children and talking about the melting of the poles. Now I know people who are having that conversation. I wrote it with this very cynical view of what the world looked like, and it seems that the world has caught up with it. It’s more possible right now to say in a theatre in London or in Brooklyn that the world is a scary place. There’s a sense of anger and impatience and dread that everyone is feeling.”

That said, Macmillan adds that his play, which traces its characters over an extended period of time, is “a love story at its core. When a play first goes on, I get very anxious and analytical, but when I watch this now, I can just allow myself to enjoy the work that Matt and Claire have done. To listen and hear the audience gasp at one word — that’s great.”

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