Sand gets into every crack and crevice. The bottom of the bag, under the seat, between your toes. The experience of a day at the beach is at once highly specific and yet surprisingly universal. From the messy application of suntan lotion to the treks to the toilet, the swigs of the tepid water bottle warmed in the sun to the parasol that collapses in the wind, familiar motifs seemingly transcend national customs and even social class. What could be a greater equaliser than sitting in your swimming trunks, slowly reddening in the sun, with nothing much more to consider than your next swim?
It is this universality that Sun & Sea, the opera-performance by Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė and Lina Lapelytė, conjures with vividly observed precision. Premiered at the Lithuanian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2019, where it was promptly awarded the Golden Lion for Best National Participation, it has since been translated into English and gone on tour almost continuously around the world.
Audiences everywhere from Los Angeles to Moscow to Reykjavik have found themselves transported to the seaside, where they look down from a godlike view above at a stage covered entirely with sand. The singers are cast as beachgoers sprawled under an imaginary beating sun, with towels, novelty inflatables and picnics at the ready.
This cast of characters is so tightly tuned in their posture, costume and accessories as to come sharply into focus before they have even sung a single note. There is the older couple who tenderly rub suntan lotion into each other’s backs and search haplessly for their reading glasses. The young, lithe woman with bleached hair who sips a smoothie while tapping idly at her phone. The gay couple in sunglasses and trunks who nibble at a platter of raw vegetables and juggle with miniature bean bags. The children who run and jump with a beachball decorated with a world map, a miniature globe tossed carelessly back and forth.
“The singers are cast as beachgoers sprawled under a beating sun, with towels, novelty inflatables and picnics at the ready”
This beachball is an apt metaphor for the deeper environmental concerns of Sun & Sea which quietly make themselves known, like the tide creeping up the shore. A young man sings of 3D-printed coral, a future alternative to the disappearing reefs that another character, a wealthy mother, has paid to swim among with her young son at exclusive spots around the world. “What a relief that the Great Barrier Reef has a restaurant and hotel!” she coos from her reclining beach chair. Another protagonist reflects on the impact of globalisation, which means that “super sweet dates” can be imported from Iran to snack on while “wearing swimming suits made in the factories of China”.
“What’s wrong with people? Is it so hard to walk to a trash bin, or what?” demands a woman in a sarong, who flips from frustration at the littering of the beach to evocative reminiscences about her grandmother’s favourite breakfast of smoked fish and mayonnaise.
“Sun & Sea demonstrates the shared strivings and failings that make each of us human”
It is these deeply personal interludes (ranging from a fraught recollected dream that veers into the surreal, to the tender bittersweet exchange between a couple as they discuss what time one of them will catch a flight the next morning) that give Sun & Sea its emotional pull. The overworked husband of the wealthy mother intones his exhaustion in time with the music, a repeated refrain that feels increasingly desperate with each reiteration: “Exhaustion, exhaustion, exhaustion, exhaustion…”
As the electronic score wavers and swells, the choreographed gestures and movements of the cast see them shift and integrate. It is as if bridges were forming between their tiny towelled islands, linking strangers together in their commonalities. Inhabiting the same space beside the sea, they find themselves momentarily on a singular level and terrain, even if the snippets of song that emerge from each of the individual characters only emphasise how different, how unique, each one really is.
Like grains of sand shaken in the waves, Sun & Sea demonstrates the shared strivings and failings that make each of us human. It shows us as both agents in the destruction of our planet and helpless participants on an already set trajectory, waiting to be washed away with the tide.
Louise Benson is Elephant’s deputy editor
Sun & Sea is on tour now, with performances scheduled at various venues across Europe in 2022
Images: Sun & Sea, 2021, installation view at E-WERK Luckenwalde as part of Power Nights. Image: Stefan Korte. Courtesy the artists