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theatre

Sun & Sea – The Albany

This delightfully designed opera uses a beach scene and songs to reflect with searing depth on humanity’s relationship to the planet, finding a place of escape from and during the climate crisis

Having watched Sun and Sea a couple of weeks ago, I have found my mind returning to it more and more due to news coverage of this record-breaking heatwave. Despite being a major weather event – pointing to severe and rapid global heating – the media response, at least in the run up and early stages was, for the most part, shockingly glib. This was matched by Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab encouraging everyone simply to ‘enjoy the sunshine’. Yet in other quarters, there have been pockets of utter doomerism – widespread suffering considered a taste of our medicine, just desserts, laced with the masochistic pleasure of having been proved right. Frequently, however, even following a ‘red warning’ for ‘exceptional heat’ – never before issued by the Met Office in the UK – and the risk of huge excess mortality, outlets have returned to the imagery of the beach – a stock film staple of the sunny weather VT. The climate crisis is no beach holiday.

Sun & Sea, a durational opera by Lina Lapelytė, Vaiva Grainytė and Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, aptly examines the beach – specifically the sandy beach favoured by many holidaymakers – as a nexus of our relationship to the planet, as well as a representation of contemporary life in microcosm. As part of the LIFT Festival, The Albany’s auditorium has been transformed into a two-tier arena to play host to the opera, which has previously played across Europe (most notably the Venice Biennale, where it won the top prize, the Golden Lion). From above, the audience watch over the beach scene below, where deck chairs and towels are populated by various beach dwellers – most of whom are characters in the opera, taking solos, duets, and occasionally choral roles in the few group numbers. Billed as an opera, it seems more redolent of song cycles – with loosely juxtaposed pieces circling around central themes. You watch for an hour, and it repeats over and over (sometimes up to eight hours in total). Its looping format negates the possibility of any overarching linear plot. Yet any narrative would seem antithetical to its attempt to represent a beach scene. Instead, we hear sometimes-surreal snapshots of various lives.

The opera is implicitly about the ethical weight of our decisions. Flying to go on a beach holiday, as the ‘Wealthy Mommy’ character has (collecting the different seas her eight-year-old son has swum in on a bucket list) cannot be considered a neutral act. The beach is a space where people’s relationship to the planet and to each other meet in theoretical harmony – but are fraught with danger. The heat is an ambiguous climate of joyous relaxation and simultaneous alarm. Like the news in recent days, Sun & Sea places implicit pressure on the semantics of weather; we are so used to associating heat with ‘good weather’, yet it has clear dangers – far beyond mere sunburn. Meanwhile, the shore is under threat from rising sea levels and falling biodiversity.

The libretto conceives of this beach as an explicit escape from the demands of capitalism, though it remains impossible to escape its effects – psychological and ecological. The ‘Song of Exhaustion’, delivered by the ‘Workaholic’ (characters are anonymous, identified by vague types they fit into), is the most direct expression of a soul under threat from the grind of office labour. His ‘suppressed emotions’ have become ‘knotted up in [his] psyche’, and even on the beach, he is unable to switch off; he cannot ‘let [himself] slow down, because my colleagues will look down on me’. Everything he does is soaked in shame, his pent up anguish building to a moment that never arrives here but inevitably will – where he ‘lose[s his] cool in public’ and mortifyingly embarrasses himself – or worse. He worries that his ‘suppressed negativity’ will burst out of him ‘like lava’. His maleness is unspecified in the text, though the role implicitly seems to imagine some toxic masculine behaviour as an uncontrolled, volcanic outpouring stemming from exhaustion – like the earthquakes caused by tectonic plates under immense pressure. We are invited to sympathise but not necessarily excuse such an explosion.

One of the show’s great triumphs is its understanding and presentation of sheer pettiness. The recurring iterations of the ‘Chanson of Admiration’ – short stanzas of praise for beauty of the sky, seabirds and jellyfish – juxtapose the longer incarnations of the ‘Song of Complaint’. ‘What’s wrong with people’, the first bout of complaining begins. People with dogs are accused of ‘leav[ing] shit on the beach, fleas in the sand’, while beer drinkers mean ‘it smells like a slum-hole’. The song is woven with casual contempt for the poor and homeless – who the singer has seemingly holidayed to escape from contact with – and one description of finding the fishy remains of someone’s lunch under their blanket describes the object (with a seemingly deliberate loaded quality) as ‘a foreign body’. The closest thing to a narrative payoff in the opera comes in the second part of the song, in which the singer reminisces about the ‘unpleasant associations’ of fish that came from being force fed it by her (now-deceased) grandmother. The gesture deepens her character. Like the Workaholic, her attitudes are not legitimised but explained with a surprising tenderness, while opening up the fissures of entitlement and exclusivity that pervade some holidays.

Relatively simple moments can be hugely effective. The rhythms of visiting a beach are put under the microscope in catchy songs such as ‘Sunscreen Bossa Nova’, while a hugely moving conversation between a couple sees them repeatedly counting the hours they have left together before one goes away. They take solace in plans to make an omelette and refuel the car, unable to full express their anticipated emotions beyond simply the fact of them ‘getting sad’. Also brilliantly incorporated are the volunteer participants dotted around the edge of the beach, soaking up the simulated sun, reading, playing games, and seemingly befriending each other before our eyes. Though I am unable to see a dog on stage without being reminded of Ella Hickson’s The Writer (in which a character claims that ‘There should not be a dog’ on stage, ‘unless you’re going to cut its […] tongue out’), Sun & Sea is a rare piece of theatre where a dog’s unpredictability adds to the scene’s verisimilitude, rather than highlighting its fakery and breaking the theatrical illusion. The extent of the opera’s artifice is abundantly clear (given that we are literally inside), yet that does not preclude ostensibly real (certainly new, unrehearsed and unreproducible) events occurring in the space.

The music itself plays second fiddle to the superb design concept, with the vocal lines beautifully sung over relatively sparse backing. The lyrics are at their best when taking more surreal turns, such as in a song entitled ‘Dream’, in which one sunbather tell us about dreaming of meeting someone with an egg-sized tumour in his brain. Another thread describes vast flight disruption from an unexpected volcano eruption, leaving a couple stranded together in an uneasily idyllic extended holiday. The brilliant ‘3D Sisters’ Song’ is a downright bizarre highlight. It features duetting identical twins contemplating the mortality of the human body, before fantasising about 3D-printing coral reefs back into existence; ‘Yet with the press of a single button, I will remake this world again. 3D corals fade away! […] 3D me lives forever.’ Are we to implicitly wonder if the sisters have themselves been 3D-printed from the same design? Strange and wonderful possibilities abound, and Sun & Sea is uninterested in simple answers. This beach has room for dreams of transhumanist immortality alongside increasingly ambitious rallies of badminton.

The final song in the libretto – though the nature of the piece means that the audience constantly ebb and flow in and out, and we experience no defined end or beginning – describes the ‘sea as green as a forest’, imagining the human body ‘covered with a slippery green fleece’, their swimming costumes ‘filling up with algae’. The climate crisis hangs over events, largely unspoken. The ‘Philosopher’ considers our normalisation of vast-scale importing – ‘to give us a feeling of bliss’ for only ‘one bite’ – while the 3D Sisters envision an ‘empty planet without birds, animals and corals’. The final image of eutrophication is another gesture towards climate breakdown, though suffused with a greater ambiguity. This is an algal bloom that seems delightful in its life, but is destabilising to the ecosystem – leaving ‘empty snail homes, swollen seaweed, [and] fish remains’.

Ice Watch by Olafur Eliasson, 2018

Durational installations perhaps prime us for the gradual nature of life and ecosystems – transcending the present moment and placing as a part of something longer term. They provide a way of comprehending that which is far greater than us. Perhaps the most notable recent example is Olafur Eliasson’s Ice Watch. In December 2018, the Icelandic-Danish artist brought 30 blocks of Greenlandic ice to London, as he had done previously in Copenhagen and Paris. Most were placed on the Southbank, by the Thames, just outside the Tate Modern, where visitors and passers-by alike could observe and engage with the blocks – as they slowly melted away. The aim was part-pedagogical, part-chiding, giving people – in Eliasson’s words – ‘a very tangible encounter with the consequences of their actions’.

Yet works like this (as with Sun and Sea) can encounter accusations of hypocrisy that threaten to blunt their actions. After all, Eliasson has literally contributed to melting Arctic ice through removing 30 chunks of it. Attempting to head off such criticism, three times the carbon offset cost was donated to the Woodland Trust, and while some would spin this as making the project carbon-neutral or even net-positive, this overlooks the fact that such emissions were fundamentally avoidable. Yet just because emissions occurred does not delegitimise the project outright. Instead, it is a core part of the ethical tangle that artists face; almost all art is made from resources with some carbon cost.

The Venice production of Sun & Sea featured over 25 tonnes of imported sand – imported at an inevitable price. Yet this is also the logic used to undermine the efforts of climate change campaigners in many sectors. Climate crisis art can never really escape the bind that – even if carbon neutral, with reused or upcycled design – there is a debatable opportunity cost – even then. When time is running out and urgent practical, political intervention is required, then all art could be considered a self-indulgent (and even harmful) luxury. Writing on Sun & Sea (as well as other recent climate-themed exhibitions and shows), Eloise Hendy notes that ‘the performers’ dilemma is the same one we all face, namely how to spend our days at the end of the world; how to fiddle while the world burns’. Does anything that is not purely activist itself have value?

For all the claims made about the power of art, it is highly unlikely that art will ever save us in and of itself. Sun & Sea seems to know this. Art plays a role in protest, yet protest likely cannot be artistic alone. Perhaps the true value of art in a time of emergency is its provision of a space of ethical reflection. Art’s merits are not in activism as an end in itself, but instead in how it equips audiences with knowledge and tools that make activism more effective – as well as making life worth living. Theatre, particularly, is a shared space, in which the cold facts of the climate crisis meet the complex human reality of life. Art, then, is perhaps akin to a beach holiday; it can be something of a luxury, but also brings you together with strangers, offering relaxation and rejuvenation, before returning to action elsewhere revitalised. In Sun & Sea, we look down on the beachgoers, perhaps in judgement, but it is ourselves we are judging too. This judgement is no mere condemnation, but – hopefully – a resolution for action.

Sun & Sea

Composed by Lina Lapelytė, Libretto by Vaiva Grainytė, Translated from Lithuanian by Rimas Užgiris, Direction and Scenography by Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Concept and Development by Lina Lapelytė, Vaiva Grainytė and Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė
Reviewed 7th July 2022

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