Erland Cooper: Folded Landscapes + Scottish Ensemble & Guests

Barbican The Pit

Climate change is all the rage right now.. or at least it certainly is raging… Theatre is especially leading the charge while the thing that mainly pollutes, oil, or methane leaks in Turkmenistan for example are sadly lagging behind. Enter into this frantic scrabble of conscious shows “nature songwriter” Erland Cooper and friends.

Now I reviewed Cooper back in 2020, mask strapped around my sweating mug, and was spirited to the Orkney Islands (his home). Dazzled by a mix of poetry, singing, bird song, and delicate musicality. All of these things are present in this event, amplified, and then some.

Stood around a melting (vaguely phallic) ice sculpture is the crowd of the Scottish Ensemble orchestra. Looking a lot like Macbeth’s witches if they went on a heavy recruitment drive. Cooper bounces on and begins motioning with his expressive hand like a mix between an air-steward and circus ringmaster. Plugging his new album Folded Landscapes, the event is more of a theatrical/musical extravaganza instead of a simple gig. I mean who goes to plain gigs anymore? How embarrassing..

The album is a flowing conceptual statement on the warming planet. Each “movement” (or song for the rest of us) was recorded at different temperatures from zero to record high. This is attempted in The Pit space, as they aim to melt the icy prison. Itself a twin to the one put in the courtyard of the Barbican by Cooper a week earlier.

So far so good. Throw in poet laureate Simon Armitage (casual-like) for a couple of lines, Ellie Neate’s twittering soprano, and a tonne of spoken word and you have an evening heavily pregnant with well-meaning themes and wafting smoke…

But well-meaning isn’t always the same as well-doing now is it? Is well-doing even grammatically correct? I don’t know but that’s beside the point, isn’t it? On we go!

In comparison to recent eco-shows in the same venue, A Play for the Living in a Time of Extinction, Katie Mitchell’s zero energy cost, bicycle-powered debut, this is well….not that.

Firstly the whacking great ice sculpture… Dripping? Yes. Cracking? Yes. Dramatically crashing to the floor like the crumbling glaciers of Greenland? Not quite. Also, the temperature in The Pit never changes and one dreads the energy burnt to attempt to melt the frozen standing stone or battle the body heat of 50-something captive humans… lots of show, but not a lot of do.

This leads me ohh so sweetly onto the man, the myth himself. Erland Cooper possesses a crystalline singing voice and a heart that bleeds for the planet, achingly. He dives around with a backward flat cap orchestrating the whole spectacle but not doing much himself. When he sits still for a second, we get some nice piano work but instead of the clear as a Scottish lock vocals, we get an odd list of Scottish place names.

Armitage is difficult to understand due to a muffled sound set-up. Neate’s skylark tones are pleasing but merely singing Armitage’s snatched poems a second after he squirrels off stage. The strings skid and scatter in atmospheric ways, bird recording spins and chirps, and the pianos plonk away as domestic sounds blend with swirling projections overhead. However fleeting the 20 seconds of projection was as Cooper shuts it off early.

But everything feels skin deep. The patronising voiceover of children begging us to save the planet are platitudes unlikely to get anyone to change their minds. What about showing us the damage rising sea levels will do to Cooper’s own home of Orkney or the issues in store for the birds singing merrily away on his tape recording? Where is the link between a vague sense of guilt and ecological caring and what we are watching/listening to on stage? Would you understand any of this without a blurb? I heavily doubt it.

It’s a slowly warming mess, with lots of heart and not much head. Cooper dives two and fro hands clasped, head nodding in self-congratulatory appreciation. But the evening could do with a simplification of its themes, and maybe a good sit down from our archpriest. The album is a triumph for conceptual musical art but the night proceeds to muddle and mess along until a rather abrupt end turfs us out into the thawing night. With 3 more nights to go I assume the sculpture will slowly disintegrate into nothing by the last show. But I want crashing shards of ice falling onto the front row’s guilty dry feet. What can I say? I’m only human.

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