They’re separated by a two-metre stick but their chemistry is as strong as ever. The Crown stars on their socially-distanced take on Lungs; lockdown diets and naked drawings
Claire Foy and Matt Smith are describing the odd experience of rehearsing a play while a stage manager holds a two-metre stick between them. The pair are preparing for a second run of Lungs, an intimate two-hander about the travails of modern coupledom that was first staged last year at the Old Vic in London. Their characters fought, made up and slept together on stage. This time, however, they won’t even be able to get within hand-holding distance of each other.
The stick is there to ensure that physical distance remains at all times in accordance with lockdown rules, Foy explains, adding that the stage manager, Maria Gibbons, beats them apart with it. Smith reminds her that the guidance for distancing has “just been reduced to one metre, so snap her stick in half!”
The two actors have a Tigger-ish enthusiasm in their conversational to-and-fro, even on a Zoom call at the end of a day of rehearsals. They first met six years ago on the set of Netflix hit The Crown. Foy had already got the part of young Elizabeth II and was in the room when Smith came in for his screen test. “She was very generous,” he says, “and there was something that worked about it.” They proved to have a remarkable chemistry and it is clear from their exuberant banter now that they spark just as well off-camera. They joke, tease and even finish each other’s sentences.
“We’re friends,” says Foy, “and after The Crown we said, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun if we did something together again?’ I didn’t know if anyone would let us and then we independently read this play and went, ‘Shall we just do it?’”
Lungs centres on a well-meaning, if smug, middle-class couple who talk about saving the planet and debate whether to have a baby or not. This production, performed in the theatre’s empty auditorium and filmed on Zoom, is live-streaming to audiences, to raise money for the Old Vic, which has been dark for over three-months and is in a precarious financial situation. This is the first in a new series of shows from the theatre, made to earn some income in lockdown. Matthew Warchus, the theatre’s artistic director and this show’s director, is also a seasoned film-maker, Foy points out, so he is doing some “very, very clever things into camera”.
Though both actors enthuse about the innovations of this production, they miss the physicality of the stage. “I knew that in this play we depended entirely on our connection and the other actor’s performance, but I didn’t realise how much I relied on being in each other’s physical space – being able to touch one another and engage in that way,” says Foy. “It’s making me a bit blue because you lose an element of what being an actor is. There is something vital missing. But I don’t think that it’s going to be any less because of that, but it can’t be like this for ever!”
Like all good plays, they think, this one works in various different contexts: its messages around climate disaster and environmental damage may well resonate differently in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. “Essentially,” says Foy, “this couple is asking, ‘Is love enough? Is our good intention enough?’ It’s a conversation about how we live our life. In lockdown, I’ve heard people saying the idea of no planes in the sky and less pollution feels like a real opportunity to start again. At the same time, everyone is desperate to get Heathrow back up and running and go on holiday.”
Smith thinks lockdown has offered a quietly significant pause for thought. At the beginning, the playwright Simon Stephens suggested Smith “embrace the stillness of it”. It was hard to do at first, he says, but it felt important to succumb. “With all the different movements going on now, politically, socially and ideologically, if you don’t reframe the way you think, then you’re living on another planet!”
Is he referring to the Black Lives Matter protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing in Minnesota? “Yes, of course. If your filter hasn’t shifted, or at least improved slightly, then what does it take?”
There is also their growing concern about the future of the creative industries. Earlier this month, UK culture secretary Oliver Dowden said he was convening medical and arts experts to help get live performance back on its feet. How do they feel about that?
A financial bailout would be the best kind of help, says Smith, given that the arts sector contributes billions to Britain’s economy. “A significant amount of money would be a start. It’s what they’ve done in Germany, and we could do a lot to look to the Germans, particularly in the way they have supported the arts.”
“It’s important to remind people what’s special about theatre,” adds Foy. “We learn about ourselves by watching plays, we learn about our society. You watch something and it changes you. You walk out and you think about it for days, weeks, years.” She is worried for all those freelancers who fall through the furlough net, and about losing a new generation of talent. “I went to drama school,” says Foy, a graduate of Oxford School of Drama. “That was training I could only have got in this country because our grants were so incredible.”
Foy had just got back from a Unicef trip to Lesotho and Smith had returned from filming in Morocco when the entertainment industry came to a standstill in March. He had been working on The Forgiven, John Michael McDonagh’s film adaptation of Lawrence Osborne’s acclaimed novel, also starring Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain. “All my bits were finished, but they needed another couple of weeks to get the whole film done, which is a shame. Getting all the actors together in Morocco again is going to be tough.”
How have their lockdowns been? “Good and bad,” says Smith. “Obviously there’s things you miss. I’m looking forward to the pubs opening this week, and the cinemas. But I try to keep my head in creative avenues and explore other things, whether that be reading or learning things outside the box.”
To that end, he has been memorising poetry and going over old Alan Partridge episodes to keep his spirits up. Foy has watched the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice again and turned her hand to life drawing, though she admits this latter fact only after Smith has let the cat out of the bag: “She’s like a north London Frida Kahlo,” he says.
Foy laughs nervously: “It’s weird because I’ve seen so little other human life but I’m doing life drawing.”
“Nudes?” asks Smith.
“Well, I’m looking at stuff on a tiny iPad. It’s just not the same. But there’s also been lots of eating crisps and pizza and drinking beer and essentially becoming a giant pig.”
She speaks of her immense gratitude at not having to face the stress that so many others are contending with right now, but there’s a vague sense of fomo: “There’s so much opportunity in life that I always feel I should be climbing a rock face or learning French.”
What about being a mother at this time and keeping her five-year-old daughter, Ivy Rose, entertained? “She’s back at school. The most important thing for kids at this point is to have contact with other children. I find myself thinking, ‘Is my child going to grow up in a world where everyone is wearing a face mask?’ I’ve tried to be very calm about it because I don’t want her to think the world is scary.”
Lockdown interrupted the plan to take Lungs to New York. “We were sending each other messages making plans,” says Smith. “But in true Claire Foy fashion, she said about two months before lockdownthat, ‘It’s not going to happen. This virus is going to take over.’”
“I’m a massive disaster-scenario person,” Foy explains.
Do they think, post-lockdown, that the film industry will emerge slightly more intact than theatre? “Organising a film is a logistical nightmare,” says Foy. “It’s like organising the Queen’s coronation every single day. But I don’t doubt they will be able to figure it out – they are amazing. There’s going to be a lag and a time when new things are not coming out. But we all need more stuff to watch. I know I do!”
Until then, there is socially distanced theatre and two-metre sticks but also the delicious prospect of some romantic rule-breaking, suggests Smith. “I’ve threatened Claire that I might break all lockdown rules during the play and kiss her anyway.”
• Lungs is streaming on the Old Vic’s website until 4 July. Read our review of Lungs here.