‘Durational Lithuanian climate-change opera’ isn’t perhaps the single sexiest show description of all time – it sounds intimidatingly highbrow and esoteric. Even the knowledge that said durational Lithuanian climate-change opera took the Golden Lion at the 2019 Venice Biennale is intimidating, suggesting it might be more an Important Work of Art than something you might want to go and see.
But ‘Sun & Sea’ by Lina Lapelytė, Vaiva Grainytė and Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė is so singular that it’s inevitable that any plain description just makes it sound baffling. There’s very little to compare it to, and there’s so much going on in it that a bald summary falls hopelessly short.
The centrepiece of the first LIFT festival in four years – in a co-production with the Serpentine and We Are Lewisham – the first thing to say about ‘Sun & Sea’ is that it involves dumping 14 tonnes of sand on the floor of the Albany arts centre in Deptford to create an artificial beach.
The Albany is a relatively out-of-the-way venue for a major international show, but its theatre is the perfect shape for ‘Sun & Sea’: the beach takes up the entire ground floor, while the audience is placed in the large circular balcony that rings the performance space.
The beach is full of sunbathers, sedately reading books or looking at their phones. Most of them are trained singers: to the sound of Lapelytė’s gorgeous, reverb-drenched electronic keyboard score – more Young Marble Giants than Wagner – individual performers take turns to tackle a disarmingly eclectic array of (English language) songs that vary from a keening lament for a man who died at sea to a surreal narrative about the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef.
Calling it ‘opera’ or referring to Grainytė’s lyrics as a libretto feels complicated. Most (but not all) of the singers use an opera range, but the structure of the individual tracks is much more like proggy pop, and often very catchy. It’s a song cycle, really, of discrete solo numbers bound together by occasional moments of swelling ensemble harmony or the occasional droning keyboard wig-out.
Barzdžiukaitė’s production is immensely beautiful – sometimes overwhelmingly so. If the lyrics allude to climate change, they’re not lectures on it. Instead, it feels like the message here comes from a quality of the installation itself, and the juxtaposition of the songs with the setting. The beach is almost aggressively sedate and normal, but the songs speak of a world where the sea is no longer our friend and sunbathing will no longer be safe. There is less a feeling of doom than elegy: a beautiful sadness.
The singers are joined by various volunteer ‘performers’: kids eating ice creams, a couple of friends having a game of badminton, a woman taking her dog for a walk. In some ways they’re the heart of ‘Sun & Sea’: while everything else is there to generate the mood, it’s not actually random opera singers we’ll miss when the beaches are uninhabitable, but these simple frolics.
The thought occurred to me that perhaps in the metatheatre of this show the beaches are already gone, and we’re looking at a sort of zoo exhibit, a poignant recreation of a pre-global heating world. That’s an interpretation rather than the makers’ explicit intent, I think, but there are boundless depths to the work.
‘Sun & Sea’ plays out on loop of about an hour that repeats over the evening, ie the entire cycle of songs is done again and again and again. It’s a shame – albeit a logistically understandable one – that audiences are encouraged to leave after a single loop. It’s entirely reasonable: it’s time for the next set of ticket holders to come in. But there’s clearly a cumulative effect to seeing it on repeat that you’re not going to get here (though I think there’s a small amount of leeway to stay, it’s just not really encouraged).
Still, even if you don’t quite get the full effect, the 99 percent that you do is remarkable: a vision of a lazy day at the beach so gaspingly sad and beautiful it’ll have you fighting tears.