"Bad body odour is really excruciating on stage."
If you've attended a Melbourne Theatre Company production in the past decade, you've probably seen Bert LaBonté on stage. When asked how many MTC plays he's been cast in, he estimates, "I think this is [number] 19". "I did The Mountaintop the other year, where I played Martin Luther King, and that was a two-hander, and that was 90 minutes on stage the whole time as well," LaBonté observes a couple of similarities to his current role alongside Kate Atkinson in Lungs. He admits it's exhausting ("Yep, I'm not even gonna pretend"), adding, "But it's also part of the challenge". "Really good writing" makes it easier, according to LaBonté, who extols, "both times I feel like I was gifted with great scripts".
So has LaBonté ever forgotten his lines mid-performance? "Yep." Atkinson pipes up, "Oh, great! Now he tells me." And so how did LaBonté deal? "I just blamed the other actors," he jests. "No, I've either dried and I've made the next line up, roughly in the context of what was supposed to be said, or I've dried and someone else has just come in with their line and it doesn't really make a difference to the piece."
"I mean, I know I'm just not a smelly guy. Bad body odour is really excruciating onstage".
On Duncan Macmillan's Lungs script, Atkinson praises, "He has an extraordinary capacity for natural, confused — you know, sometimes articulate, sometimes infuriating — conversation… You'd think you can improvise it, but you'd never do it well enough to. He's good." According to Atkinson, Lungs is "a complicated and messy 21st century relationship story" that explores themes such as "environmentalism, hitting children and population growth". LaBonté admires "how accurate [Macmillan's] take on the world at the moment is".
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They play a couple in Lungs and we're curious to learn how actors develop instant chemistry. "We had sex a coupla times," LaBonté jokes and Atkinson laughs in disbelief before offering, "I would credit Clare [Watson, director] with really good casting. I've never worked with Bert before, but we've been friends for a long time… I'd have to say, from the first day, it's been so easy." We're guessing that putting some hygiene standards into practice, such as deodorant and the occasional breath mint, can also help. "The odd mint doesn't hurt, because we both like good coffee," LaBonté chuckles. Atkinson suggests, "We've had no odour issues. I've got none!" LaBonté shares, "I mean, I know I'm just not a smelly guy," before cautioning, "Bad body odour is really excruciating on stage".
There's no interval in Lungs and LaBonté divulges, "There are no props". And although the play's action kicks off in IKEA, LaBonté stresses, "There's probably about 13 or 14 locations throughout the play." Atkinson concurs, "Yeah, over time. And the set doesn't duplicate any of those locations for us, we just create them with the language and, you know, a bit of canny blocking." As well as changes in location, LaBonté reveals, "And we span about 40 to 50 years in the space of 90 minutes".
"It's like an acting gift, and slightly terrifying," Atkinson says. "So the pressure is on you. It's all about you and the language."