One of the intriguing things about Matthew Warchus’ revival of Duncan MacMillan’s Lungs at the Old Vic is how the two-hander effortlessly fills the stage. It may be the presence of its two stars – Claire Foy and Matt Smith – who ensure the auditorium is full and can make it commercially viable, but it is fascinating how this production disproves the notion that contemporary plays only thrive in small, more intimate spaces. In this publication, Tim Bano called it a “mighty play”.
There is a lot of scaling-up going on. I first saw Fleabag performed by Phoebe Waller-Bridge in a 60-seater theatre at the Edinburgh Fringe, and while it was the success of the TV series that created the conditions for a viable run at Wyndham’s Theatre, London, earlier this year, audiences didn’t seem put off from seeing it in a large space rather than a studio.
Or what about Alice Birch’s [Blank], currently at the Donmar Warehouse. A big play in every sense, [Blank] consists of 100 different scenes. Some are intended to be played only by children, some by adults and children, and some by adults alone.
Those staging the scenes can decide how many they want to produce and in which order. It can be big or small in scale but will always be huge in its intention, which is showing how the lives and relationships of women are political and tell us much about the workings of power and patriarchy, motherhood and forgiveness.
So when we talk about the need to find plays big enough to fill the Olivier stage, or are intimate enough to play a studio space, is it because we have old-fashioned notions about scale and what can and can’t fill a particular space?
‘It is always exciting to see playwrights thinking big and liberating themselves from the black-box space barely bigger than a postage stamp’
After all, nobody would dream of putting a Greek tragedy in the London Palladium, but in Ancient Greece the works of Sophocles and Aeschylus would play to audiences of 25,000 at a time, albeit in amphitheatres much more sympathetic to audience experience than many of our Victorian and Edwardian West End theatres.
I first saw Lungs over a decade ago in Sheffield and at Shoreditch Town Hall, in Paines Plough’s pop-up touring tent Roundabout, a space of entrancing intimacy and exceptional democracy. Every seat in the house makes you feel as if you can reach out and touch the stage. Mind you, that can be pretty exposing too: there is nowhere for the actors, writer or director to hide. Every flaw is magnified.
Though it premiered small, MacMillan wrote Lungs while on attachment at the Old Vic under a scheme called the Big Ambition Award with the aim of getting young playwrights to write a big play for the main house.
The decision under consideration by the couple in Lungs may be a personal one – do they have a child – and it may feel much of the time as if you are eavesdropping on a private conversation. But, like [Blank], the ideas of the play are big, encompassing climate emergency, responsibility, over-population and whether Western middle-class privilege is dependent on the suffering of others who are elsewhere in the world, out of sight and out of mind. Maybe, like Lungs, there are plenty of other plays that would work on a far bigger scale and on much bigger stages, and the reason that they don’t is merely down to a lack of imagination on the part of directors and producers.
We all know from pocket-sized revivals of large-scale musicals at London venues such as the Menier Chocolate Factory and the Union Theatre that all-singing, all-dancing shows can successfully scale down. As those who saw Big know, the spectacular can be empty and seem rather small. So why not the other way around?
The experience of the Old Vic with Lungs and prior to that with Simon Stephens’ Sea Wall suggests that often what separates the big from the small has more to do with production values, casting and ticket prices than the limits (or not) of the playwright’s imagination. German theatre frequently treats British contemporary plays, that have just had studio productions in this country, as if they are epics and gives them productions of dazzling scale.
It is always exciting to see playwrights thinking big and liberating themselves from the black-box space barely bigger than a postage stamp. But experience often tells them that the two-hander they write is more likely to be produced than the epic that requires a supporting cast of seagulls and numerous locations. Too often, playwrights have to be dead and called Ibsen, Shakespeare or Miller to get a work treated as a big play for a big space. Lungs reminds us that scale is all in the mind.
Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner