In an extended stage direction prefacing his hit play Lungs, British writer Duncan Macmillan lays down some ground rules: no props, no scene changes, no costume changes and no miming. That is, to perform his play that covers the ups and downs of a modern couple’s relationship over a number of years, he seems to be insisting on just two actors on a bare stage. And to make things just a bit more difficult for the actors and director (and perhaps even the audience), he hasn’t deigned to indicate scene breaks in his script, so all the action is laid out over seventy-odd pages as one long dialogue. Now, Houdini, get out of that one.
‘It’s a big, big challenge,’ says the director Clare Watson, who candidly admits she’s usually no stickler for stage directions. ‘I never ignore them entirely, but I don’t take them literally. They’re a guide, always open to reinterpretation.’
However, Watson, currently the Artistic Director of St Martins Youth Theatre and who recently directed What Rhymes with Cars and Girls for MTC, wants to play this particular game of theatrical austerity by the rules – well, up to a point. She’s looking for places where the rules might have some flex in them.
‘Working out the parameters is one of the exciting things about this play,’ she says. ‘We are not allowed props – fine, but [Macmillan] also says, no miming. Yet, for example, if the lines talk about the couple hugging, can they hug? If they mention dancing, can they dance? They’re going to be fun decisions to make in the rehearsal room. I think there’s a spectrum debate on all of those things. And I think what we will be doing a lot of in rehearsals is building up the precise scene and then paring it back and paring it back to where it functions best for the storytelling.’
Lungs has some stylistic similarities to Constellations, Nick Payne’s play about multiple universes and alternate realities that MTC produced a couple of seasons ago. By playing through the scene breaks, it challenged the audience’s skills in reading what was happening. Macmillan similarly insists his story be laid out in whole cloth without showing any seams. This is another rule Watson isn’t keen to break.
‘The scene changes won’t be [physically] evident to the audience,’ she says. ‘There may be very subtle shifts that might occur in lighting, but they’ll be extremely subtle. Because the fun for the audience in this play is keeping up with the reality of the characters at all times. The characters talk so quickly and think so quickly, that part of the investment for an audience will be to keep on top of the evolving story. The rule of no scene changes is there to intensify the experience for the audience. One of the great things you can do in theatre, just with the power of words, is borrow the imagination of the audience to create all these extraordinary time sculptures. You can’t do that in film in the same way.’
For Watson, the constraint that pinches tightest is the one against scenery, especially since MTC audiences have high expectations of our design and workshop departments. Some might feel cheated if they were presented with just a black box or a plain square of carpet. ‘I certainly don’t want to disappoint that expectation,’ Watson says. ‘Yet there’s a loyalty to the writer’s intention, too.’
So she and the designer Andrew Bailey, who worked with her on What Rhymes with Cars and Girls and Robert Reid’s Lawler Studio play, On the Production of Monsters, have found a design that contrives to ‘have it both ways…So I am hoping that we have reached a – cheeky – happy medium.’
‘It was an interesting, problem-solving activity, where we created something dynamic that made a statement, but without denying the author’s intention for the work.’
This is an excerpt from Scenes, Melbourne Theatre Company’s subscriber magazine. Lungs is playing at Arts Centre Melbourne until 19 March.