Quite breathtaking

By Michael Olsen

Take a deep breath and plunge into the Australian premiere of Lungs this season at Melbourne Theatre Company. Written by award-winning British playwright Duncan Macmillan this 90 minute two-hander (without interval) charts the life, death and (re)birth of a modern relationship. Funny and real by turns, and quite touching in the end, it charts what happens when we start to question our lives and our effect on the planet.


The play opens in an IKEA store, as the unnamed man gingerly suggests to his unnamed partner that they have a baby. Well, the floodgates of anxiety, doubt and interminable analysis are opened (she’s doing a Ph.D, we don’t know in what) and we bear intimate witness to their attempts to make sense of themselves and their relationship, all starting from the effect one baby would have on the planet. (I forget how many trees they would have to plant to mitigate their offspring’s carbon footprint.) We are made to feel like a fly on the wall of these characters’ lives as they search for meaning and answers where perhaps only faith of a kind will see us through.

Kate Atkinson (of Wentworth and Sea Change fame) and Bert LaBonté (Mountaintop among many others) deliver powerhouse performances in this single almost unbroken dialogue that carries us through the ups and downs of this couple’s relationship. Whilst we might not get the answers to all the problems they face, it’s this very questioning that helps propel the play forward. Director Clare Watson‘s direction is slick and sophisticated, always keeping the myriad changes in time and place clear and immediate. Whilst Andrew Bailey‘s set design (an IKEA kitchen that imperceptibly rotates a full 360º and lets gravity slowly toss the kitchen’s chair, books and cutlery like a tumble drier) conveys the idea of the couple’s life going topsy-turvy as they explore the intricacies of their relationship, it’s also a mite distracting, but really a minor criticism in an overall production that grabs you right from the start and doesn’t let up.

Lungs was something Macmillan wrote as “a challenge and a gift for actors.” In presenting the problems and challenges of its characters, it’s also a gift for the audience. Showing until 19 March at the Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio.