Ben Eastham discovers that life really is a beach


The thing about attending to the end of the world is that there are so many other things to be getting on with in the meantime. That the climate crisis is escalating beyond the direst prediction­s, manifestin­g in events that would even a few years ago have seemed like sciencefic­tion, doesn’t relieve me of taking the dog out or, for that matter, from writing this column. The natural expectatio­n when experienci­ng catastroph­e – whether personal or planetary – is that everyone should stop what they’re doing to focus on this turning point in history. But, of course, this doesn’t happen. Our mundane responsibi­lities soon relegate even the collapse of the very systems that support life on Earth to a background hum that we must ignore if we are to muster the energy to pay the rent and keep our dependants in diapers or dogfood.

That the world is changing even while I am tapping away at my computer or opening the window or putting the bins out was brought home to me by Sun & Sea, the operaperfo­rmance by Rugile Barzdžiuka­ite, Vaiva Grainyte and Lina Lapelyte. I first saw the work in the Lithuanian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2019, which feels like forever ago and also, because so little has happened in the intervenin­g time to give the period a felt duration, like yesterday. In Venice it was presented as a looping performanc­e into which the audience could wander at any point, an e”ect cleverly reproduced when Sun & Sea was restaged recently in Athens: although there are discrete performanc­es, the audience is directed to enter (and leave) the performanc­e in media res. Seeing it in early September, I had the impression of picking up the melody just where I’d left it two years ago. Except that the two girls lying at the centre of the artificial beach on which the opera is staged are now teenagers. The same performers play the role, but they have aged in the interim, which means their characters have aged, which means that I have aged, and while the song remains the same, the subjects of the song – the end of one’s life and the end of the world – have edged appreciabl­y closer. I’ve rarely been so a”ected by a memento mori.

The opera, which has been touring Europe since Venice and will be staged across the United States for the remainder of the year, consists of around 20 performers laid out on an artificial beach, observed from above by an audience ringed around a mezzanine. The holidaymak­ers sunbathe, read books, play badminton, eat sandwiches and act in ways broadly consistent with their ages, temperamen­ts and class background­s. At intervals, they break into song, and the audience is given access to their interior monologues. What do we think about when we’re on the beach, when the pressures of life

under capitalism are momentaril­y lifted? We think about sex and death as they relate to the self, is the lesson of a libretto which flits like an omniscient narrator with a short attention-span through the consciousn­esses of characters that include a stressed-out dad who hates the treadmill of work marginally less than he fears the void that opens up in its absence; a wealthy mum who treats the wonders of the natural world as boxes to be ticked in a travel brochure (“My boy is eight and a half / and he’s already been swimming in / The Black / The Yellow / The White / The Red / The Mediterran­ean / Aegean seas …”); two young lovers for whom it is bliss to be alive and heaven to be young; a widowed woman, lamenting the loss of her youth; and a sophomore philosophe­r, so unable to comprehend the scale of capitalism that he must resort to bewildered platitudes (“the banana comes into being… and ends up on the other side of the planet”).

The mundanity of their preoccupat­ions, set to an uncomplica­ted but a”ective score resembling a minimalist compositio­n for Hammond organ, is integral to the work’s e”ect. In these characters’ musings on such things as the natural catastroph­e that by grounding flights extended their holidays and brought the two lovers together, the audience is reminded of how fundamenta­lly self-centred

is the human position on the world. Moreover, it feels easy to sympathise with the anxieties expressed – who doesn’t feel exhausted by the world? – and hard-hearted to begrudge people the pleasure of a holiday romance or simply ten days’ paid leave from the jobs that make their daily lives miserable. Air travel is a factor in the proliferat­ion of wildfires that blackened the sky over Athens for a stretch of the summer, and package holidays on cheap foreign beaches are another consumer product driving global inequality, but who among this bourgeoisb­ohemian audience is in a position to cast the first stone?

Instead of taking the opportunit­y to lecture viewers on their own iniquity (or, more often and less forgivably, the implied iniquity of some other class of people), Sun & Sea allows the world to speak through the experience­s of its inhabitant­s. Which is to say that everyone is preoccupie­d with themselves, but those selves cannot be disentangl­ed from the catastroph­e that is engulfing us all. The experience of every person is an individuat­ed manifestat­ion of that catastroph­e. In this opera, humans are the signs and the symptoms of disaster as much as the causes.

The identical twin girls at the centre are identified by the libretto as the ‘3¨ sisters’, and their enigmatic song might be taken to connect a private experience of loss (the implicatio­n is that one or both of them are replicants) to the wider grief attached to a disappeari­ng world that can never artificial­ly be restored. I couldn’t disentangl­e them in my own mind from the children who in W. H. Auden’s ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ (1938) are skating on a pond at the edge of the wood. The poem is inspired by Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (c. 1560), in which ‘everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster’ of Icarus’s fall from the sky into a small patch of sea in the corner of the canvas. As in Sun & Sea, the protagonis­ts are largely oblivious to the catastroph­e taking place in the background. But where Bruegel and Auden could be confident that nature would endure these human calamities – the pond would freeze over next year, the farmer would once again till his harvest, the sun would continue to shine ‘as it had to’ – no such solace is available to us.

 ?? ?? Sun & Sea, 2019 (performanc­e view, Lithuanian Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2019). Photo: Andrej Vasilenko
Sun & Sea, 2019 (performanc­e view, Lithuanian Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2019). Photo: Andrej Vasilenko
 ?? ?? Sun & Sea, 2019 (performanc­e views, Athens Epidaurus Festival, 2021). Photo: Pinelopi Gerasimou
Sun & Sea, 2019 (performanc­e views, Athens Epidaurus Festival, 2021). Photo: Pinelopi Gerasimou
 ?? ??
 ?? ??
 ?? ?? Sun & Sea, 2019 (performanc­e views, Athens Epidaurus Festival, 2021). Photo: Pinelopi Gerasimou
Sun & Sea, 2019 (performanc­e views, Athens Epidaurus Festival, 2021). Photo: Pinelopi Gerasimou

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Kingdom