Three years after its Golden Lion win at the 2019 Venice Biennale, Sun & Sea arrived in London. The Lithuanian performance on climate change was brought to the British capital as a collaboration between We Are Lewisham Borough of Culture 2022, London’s International Festival of Theatre (LIFT) 2022, and the Serpentine Gallery’s Back to Earth programme on the climate emergency.
This multitude of producers from all corners of the London cultural sphere begged the question: “what exactly is it?”, as many people enquired when I mentioned my summer evening outing. In each context, it became a different art form. Was it a public community event for Lewisham council, a theatrical production for LIFT, or performance art for the Serpentine’s contemporary art audience? Perhaps the most successful description is an opera, the ‘total’ or ‘ultimate’ art form—a beach opera to be exact.
In the years since its English-language premier in Venice (the original is in Lithuanian), Sun & Sea has travelled all over Europe and to various American cities. Especially notable was its arrival in South East London, performed at The Albany in Deptford, Lewisham from June 23rd to July 10th, 2022. The Albany’s round theatre and balcony provided the ideal panopticon-esque set up from which viewers could observe the sand-filled stage and its lounging performers from above.
Aside from the practicality of the theatre, the choice of a Lewisham space felt especially apt. The borough is known for its Caribbean and West African communities, whose countries of origin are among those most vulnerable to the effects of the climate crisis. Besides bringing the art world intelligentsia out of its Central London comfort zone, the performance made big budget contemporary art more accessible to Londoners south of the river, from £5 tickets for those in need, to inviting local families to get involved as volunteer, background beachgoers on evenings and weekends.
Although climate change is a global issue, Sun & Sea takes on a varied meaning in each location where it is performed, as environmental problems have manifested differently across the world. Its production in London, a city infamous for blackening one’s snot with smoke, had a different impact than in Venice, where rising sea levels threaten the very existence of the historic city. Nevertheless, 2022 emerged as an unfortunately fitting year for the harrowing production to be put on in the United Kingdom.
This past summer saw Britain’s normally rainy capital gripped by extreme heat waves culminating in a drought and wildfires. Sun & Sea’s Serpentine sponsor would be destined to sit amongst the dead, sallow grass in Hyde Park as temperatures rose above 40 degrees Celsius for the first time in UK history, just nine days after the performance’s closure. 2022 would ultimately prove to be the United Kingdom’s hottest year on record. The performance warned against far more than rising temperatures, however, in its vision of impending environmental disaster.
A read of the libretto reveals discussion of the “bleached, pallid whiteness” of the Great Barrier Reef, littering on the beach and dirtying of the oceans (“With emerald-coloured bags/Bottles and red bottle-caps/O the sea never had so much colour!”), the earth’s fragile biodiversity, and the collapse of bee colonies (“I cried so much when I learned bees/are massively falling from the sky/And with them all the world’s plant life/will die”).
Looking back on this scorching summer, my June viewing is best remembered as a forewarning of what was to come. The UK, and the world, is at a critical point in the climate catastrophe. Artworks like Sun & Sea provide an imperative reminder of our need to act and not take man-made environmental devastation lying down (quite literally in this case).
Since this summer, the UK’s commitment to ecological action has become increasingly doubtful, with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s disinterest in attending COP27 in November and the UK government’s December approval of the country’s first new coal mine in three decades, emitting more greenhouse gases into our atmosphere. I cannot help but think of the irony, as certain doom grants us more beautiful beach days in a notoriously damp and cold country, not unlike the one that unfolded below me.
After the conclusion of its London stint, Sun & Sea continued across Europe and the Middle East. In 2023, it will travel to Australia and South America. Although, one should note the paradox of a performance which critiques the environmental impacts of mass tourism whilst travelling the world continually since 2019, and in each location - 29 and counting - needing to bring in and dispose of 10 to 30 tons of sand. But perhaps the ends justify the means.
The opera’s popularity has endured despite language and cultural differences, just as climate change has been shown to know no borders nor boundaries. Sun & Sea has been performed within an array of venues, from music schools, to theatre festivals, to other biennials. In some contexts, it becomes a travelling exhibition, in others a touring musical.
But why is Sun & Sea permitted this defiance of genres? Its conventions conform more to art than to theatre. No information was available at the performance on the incredible singers, or the silent ensemble, who sit on the beach playing chess and making sand castles. The performance seamlessly repeats every hour, with the audience free to come and go as they please. One is encouraged to wander around the balcony whilst observing the beach below. There is no clapping, cheering, or standing ovation for our anonymous cast, no matter how clearly deserved.
Nevertheless, it is a prime example of Bertolt Brecht’s theory of epic theatre, in which spectator becomes “observer”. As Brecht writes in his seminal essay, “The Modern Theatre is the Epic Theatre”, the performance “arouses his capacity for action/forces him to take decisions…brought to the point of recognition/the spectator stands outside, studies”.1 These are a few of the qualities that distinguish epic theatre from dramatic theatre, and Sun & Sea certainly fits the bill.
Brecht intended for epic theatre to bring about social change and galvanise its audiences, just as Sun & Sea imparts its viewers with a sense of urgency to slow climate change. It ruthlessly reminds us of our apocalyptic present with lyrics like, “You see, we had Christmas at our farmhouse/But this year, there was no frost, no snow, it felt like it could be Easter!...As granny liked to say: ‘The end of the world!”
Sun & Sea imparts its message without using traditional narrative; it is cyclically structured, chiefly interested in its theme rather than fully fleshing out its characters.
Viewers are not meant to form a strong attachment to these personnages known by tongue-in-cheek pseudonyms, clearly indicating the range of types on display: “Wealthy Mommy”, “Siren”, “Philosopher”, “Workaholic”, and “Volcano Couple”. Together they are known as the “Vacationers”. It should also be noted that most of these privileged Vacationers are white, although this may be coincidental as most of the singers remain the original Lithuanian and Venetian cast.
These blunt identifications are one of the many distancing techniques employed to create an alienation effect, or Verfremdungseffekt. Brecht explains, “The essential point of the epic theatre is perhaps that it appeals less to the feelings than to the spectator’s reason. Instead of sharing an experience the spectator must come to grips with things.”2 Despite the magnificent recreation of a sandy beach, the action of looking down on the performers makes one constantly aware of their status as an observer, never able to become too immersed or deluded by the theatrics. The viewer is prevented from emotionally identifying with the characters, so that one may instead be analytical toward them, and perhaps even be inspired to action.
The viewer may be unable to sympathise with the characters, but they will certainly recognise the societal trope each represents. After the Workaholic’s aria, “Song of Exhaustion”, the singers chorus, “After vacation/your hair shines/your eyes glitter/Everything is fine.” In another song, the Philosopher contemplates the banana and other imported fruits on which they snack: “So far away from home/It only existed to satisfy our hunger in one bite/To give us a feeling of bliss/Serotonin from Ecuador - in our northern flatland/For any time of day or time of year.”
Through these characters, the performance goes beyond the environment to related problems of capitalism and globalisation, eliciting a general air of malaise and calling into question the carefree aura of a beach holiday. The opera meditates on the repercussions of a destructive human nature; “This mammal with limited lung power/Still tries so hard to go into the sea/To dive down deep/He wants to conquer and control what is not his own”, croons the Siren.
Rewind back to June, when heat was synonymous with the climate crisis, rather than the cost of living.
I experience Sun & Sea through the ideas of Brecht as the chaotic performance unfolds—a curious, rambunctious child runs around the sandy beach, shouting and laughing. He is blissfully unaware of the feat taking place around him, as performers sing beautiful arias whilst lying down on beach towels. I pondered, what is the symbolism of this child? Does his total disinterest in the performance reflect humanity’s own blind eye to the devastation of climate catastrophe in favour of personal pleasures? Is he a reminder of the total mayhem caused by environmental extremes? Or, is he a symbol of posterity, for the young lives doomed by past generations’ ambivalence toward the Earth? I ask myself these esoteric questions as he serves a shuttlecock up into the audience, narrowly missing a fellow oggler’s face.
The intentions of creators Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė, and Lina Lapelytė doubtfully match any of these lofty musings. Rather, they have gone to great lengths to create a scene as beach-like as possible, that is to say, as life-like as possible, with all its randomness and imperfections. The familiar is made strange, as Brecht intended. I focus on the bizarre aesthetics of performers chatting and scrolling on Facebook as their neighbour sings a complex melody. My friend with whom I attended, a music teacher, is preoccupied with the inconsistent quality of the vocals during the arias, which are each
split into two. A deliberate sense of dissonance and detachment is evoked, achieving a montage effect. Brecht notes this “separation of the elements” as essential in renovating opera, elevating it to epic theatre.3
It is exactly these imperfections that make the production so entrancing. Sun & Sea is not overproduced. Rather, it feels totally raw and fresh, even three years on from the Biennale, across a continent, and with a pandemic in between. And what better way to drive home the greatest and most consuming crisis of our time—climate change and its fast approaching consequences—than with the highest of art forms?
All the senses are immersed. One may even call it Gesamtkunstwerk. The scene is tactile; actors leave the beach and return with damp hair and swimsuits, as if returning from a dip in the ever-rising ocean. My taste buds are even engaged, envious of the performers snacking down below.
Alongside these sensations, the music enchants. An hour-long score reveals the story, continuously repeating so that the viewer becomes entrapped in the production like a paradisiacal dream. Holidayers lounge on a beach, some stranded by an emergency landing due to a volcanic eruption. Their songs are eerie, ranging from the decay of coral reefs to the inevitable decay of ourselves.
In sixty minutes, Sun & Sea transports the viewer to a dream that meditates on life’s nightmares. And yet, the encapsulating visuality makes one reluctant to leave, thus proving the success of the beach opera as medium—a totally innovative art form and an essential part of this fragile ecosystem. I watched devotedly from above, enjoying myself as a spectator gazing upon a seemingly frivolous performance. But, as epic theatre dictates, I could not leave without recognising myself as an active player in its harsh realities.