It’s been two and a half months since the West End in London drew its last curtain, following New York City’s Broadway into darkness. And while it’s likely to be years before we see a return to packed productions, a handful of forward thinkers have put their efforts into conceptualizing what exactly proto–pandemic theater has to offer struggling playhouses and captive audiences alike. The result is the return of Claire Foy and Matt Smith to their starring roles in Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs, the first in the Old Vic theater’s new series of virtual productions.
The duo will perform in a weeklong run of live shows streamed directly to ticket holders’ electronic devices. Directed by the Old Vic’s artistic director, Matthew Warchus, the nine-year-old play happens to be a perfect fit for our unprecedented times—Foy and Smith comprise its entire cast, and its lack of “meticulous realistic literalist [sets],” says Macmillan, means fewer crew members are needed to pull it off.
Though Foy and Smith will be in observance of London’s social-distancing requirement of two meters (a little more than six feet), performing right now is not without its dangers. “It’s a risk to do any plays, to take on any work,” says Macmillan. “It’s a very exposing thing. So to know that they were going into it with someone that they trusted completely, that was really important.” Foy and Smith last worked together in The Crown, in which they portrayed Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in the first two seasons.
In Lungs, which Foy and Smith first performed together at the Old Vic in 2019, the two actors play a young couple grappling with the decision of whether or not to have children given the dire environmental consequences of the earth’s expanding population. “When it was first put on,” Macmillan says of the show’s 2011 world premiere, at Washington, D.C.’s Studio Theatre, “I think it felt more like a satire about educated Western liberals, who overthink things and moralize and want to make sure that they’re on the right side of history.”
With each performance of Lungs over the past eight years, its identity has shifted from comedy to an earnest, deeply relatable drama—albeit one that still elicits plenty of laughs. “They are incredibly virtuosic actors, and to be in the same room as them when they are going 100 miles an hour and being funny one second and then tragic and heartbreaking in the next second … it’s sort of magic,” Macmillan continues. “I’m really excited to see them do this, and for everyone else to share in it.” Here’s to having the best seats in the house—at least for now. —Jenna Adrian-Diaz