Conflating the miracle of life with the end of the world.
From the pandemic to climate change, it seems inexplicable that anyone could imagine bringing a child into existence today. That’s precisely the dilemma a young couple faces as they consider having a child, in Singapore Repertory Theatre’s production of Lungs.
Written by Duncan Macmillan and directed by Daniel Jenkins, Lungs‘ young millennial couple are never named, but are immediately recognisable archetypes. Oon Shu An plays a strong, independent woman pursuing her PhD, while Joshua Lim plays a freelancing musician dependant on the gig economy. While they live a relatively peaceful life, their relationship is challenged when they consider having a baby, appropriately enough, while at IKEA, bringing to mind DIY furniture symbolic of building a life together.
Rather than a way to bring them closer however, talk of having a baby brings out their worst fears, including discussions on how its birth might speed up the end of the world. They begin to question their existential significance, attempting to convince themselves of their youth by going clubbing, try to remain romantic by arranging weekly lunches, or prove their own morality, ‘supporting smaller coffee shops’ and ‘giving to charity’. In constantly attempting to compare their fears to more serious, apocalyptic futures, it’s as if they’re trying to convince themselves that their personal anxieties are as important as the world’s, not realising it is all merely a distraction from confronting the hard truth of their relationship, and delay the realisation of how little they actually understand of each other.
Lungs is a tough script, with its heavy, lengthy dialogues almost never giving either actors or audiences a chance to breathe. Despite these limitations, Daniel Jenkins deftly guides his actors through each scene, and manages to find space to play with both time and distance to tease out the nuances of their relationship. Rarely, if ever, do the two physically touch each other, representing their emotional distance from each other. There is almost no transition time between scenes, giving the play a distinct sense of urgency, and reminding us that time is running out for them.
Both actors are well cast, not only nailing the look, but also possessing good chemistry with each other, such that we end up rooting for their success, in spite of all their problems. Shu An tackles her many challenging, fast-paced monologues with finesse; her deluge of lines are delivered accurately and without hesitation, almost always in a single lengthy breath, and capturing her character’s bundle of nerves. On the opposite end, while Lungs doesn’t give Joshua much opportunity to play it big, it speaks of his skill as an actor to keep up the act as a supportive, understanding partner, while slowly transforming into the exasperated boyfriend. It is a layered performance, and when he finally gets a monologue, his increasing frustration over their growing distance hits us hard.
In terms of the set, Petrina Dawn Tan plasters the wall with zinc tiles, as if the couple are living in a ruined, makeshift home. Yet the flooring is wooden, an organic material that suggests hope and life still to come. We are reminded of how the entire play began in an IKEA, and how this home seems to lie in an unfinished state, with the wooden set pieces reminiscent of unassembled building blocks, much like how the two have done nothing to truly build a life with each other.
By the end of Lungs, things haven’t exactly gone as planned for the young couple. But perhaps that’s precisely the point the play is making, about how life shouldn’t be spent constantly worrying over the future, and to find the breathing room to live in the here and now, regardless of the pain, the fights, the imperfections that it comes with. In the final, powerful scene, we hear the faint sounds of birds chirping and a soft wind blowing, as if Shu An has found peace, free at last from the chaos of all that came before. In the grand scheme of things, regardless of how much good we put into the world, how alone we are, or how many babies we have, we learn to recognise how none of it will matter in the long run, if only we learn to let go and just breathe.
Photo Credit: Singapore Repertory Theatre
Lungs plays from 21st June 2021 at the KC Arts Centre. Tickets available from SRT