"It's a little bit more complicated": Duncan Macmillan's epic and intimate plays

Questions animate the work of playwright and director Duncan Macmillan: How can you live—and find humor—in chronic depression (Every Brilliant Thing)? Should anyone be having children in the face of climate change (Lungs)? Why do people develop addictions and what does it take from you to try to recover (People, Places & Things)?  “If I had the answers I wouldn’t have written a play about it,” he says. Living in ambiguity, Macmillan’s plays are tough and sometimes brutal, but they also carry a deep sense that we are better served making mistakes together, being honest about our failures, and building the strength to try again. 

Lungs, which Studio premiered in 2011, is a running conversation between a man and a woman as they work through the pros and cons of parenthood in a warming world. It’s a very funny play, and an invitation to virtuosic acting, as the characters skip three minutes, two months, ten years forward in one conversation. The play was co-premiered with Paines Plough Theatre in England, and a German-language production (Atmen) has been in the repertoire of the Schaubühne Theatre in Berlin since 2013, and has the distinction of having monologues that are so popular they’ve been banned from some graduate school auditions. 

Every Brilliant Thing (2013) began as a short story. Macmillan developed it into a monologue and turned to Facebook to crowdsource a list of "brilliant things” that a daughter offers her mother as she’s recuperating from a suicide attempt—beautiful things, good reasons to live (#1: Ice Cream). When the Facebook page took on a life of its own, sparking deeply personal conversations about mental health, depression, and anxiety, Macmillan and his director George Perrin crafted a longer piece with stand-up comedian Jonny Donahoe. The full-length play is an interactive piece—the child makes the list for their parent, and then grows up to struggle with their own mental health. Audience members are called into action to read various parts of the list or play parts in the story. Every Brilliant Thing is hopeful without sidestepping the realities of brutal depression or that one can’t always help the people you love.  

If those were big stories in small-cast packages, Macmillan also writes on a much larger scale. He adapted and co-directed George Orwell’s 1984 (2013) with Robert Icke. Their version of Orwell’s dystopian society where critical thought is suppressed via universal surveillance, propaganda, and torture was a near-immersive multimedia production—sleight of hand scene changes, big lighting and sound effects, and intense audience reaction. (Several audience members reported vomiting in response to the torture scene.) In taking on a classic that has entered popular culture, Macmillan said he was interested in “represent[ing] the challenge” of the novel’s ambiguity—are the main character’s memories his own? Which side is each character on? Is Orwell’s vision a warning about the far right, as some claim or the far left, as others claim?  

When Macmillan wrote People, Places & Things (2015), he hadn’t written for theatre for a few years—in addition to adapting Every Brilliant Thing for HBO broadcast, he was a writer on The Crown and wrote and produced Trigonometry with Effie Woods. After 1984, he wasn’t sure that he wanted to continue writing for the theatre, but then a few things coalesced to bring him back—he wanted to write a compelling part for an actress, he wanted to explore a relationship between a mother and daughter, and he wanted to write about the long process of recovery. He also knew that he wanted to create a theatrical experience from within the complex, unreliable perspective of its lead character—to invite the audience into both the escapism of intoxication and the pain of addiction.  

Macmillan’s work has been wildly successful: 1984 had three runs on the West End and a Broadway run, as well as national and international tours. Likewise, People, Places & Things premiered at the National Theatre, toured the UK, transferred to the West End, and was later revived at St. Ann’s Warehouse in New York. Both plays were nominated for the Olivier for Best New Play. His adaptation of Ibsen’s Rosmersholm (2019) played on the West End and was nominated for an Olivier for Best Revival. He also has a number of high profile projects in development: a version of 1984 for ABC and a theatrical version of Game of Thrones

Macmillan’s plays are both curious and specific: “I always feel like a good subtitle of any play would be Well, it’s a little bit more complicated than that,” he says. This push for complexity has created a body of work that is equal parts big picture and granular human detail, whether a large-scale theatrical event or intimate study of a character or relationship. 

Adrien-Alice Hansel