Scottish Opera’s Anthropocene: An Impeccably Detailed Display of Haunting Images

Anthropocene unfurls with an extraordinarily foreboding and unsettling opening scene. Anchored in the high Arctic wilderness, pontificating entrepreneur and novice explorer Harry King (Mark Le Brocq) is rather pleased with himself for bagging a swish new boat. This time, he’s forgone a mega-yacht in St Tropez for an entirely different vessel — a trailblazing expedition ship, the titular Anthropocene, that “cuts through ice straight and sure as a model on a catwalk”.

Doing the grunt work around him while Harry self-congratulates are scientist Prentice (Jeni Bern) and sailor Vasco (Anthony Gregory), who heave poles of ice on board for examination in the ship’s laboratory. Harry and his hodge-podge crew are hoping to find ancient microbes, meteorites and other microscopic evidence, preserved remnants of prehistoric humanity from which they will glean ground-breaking truths about ourselves and the very meaning of life.

Mid-brag, Harry is interrupted by a warning from Captain Ross (Paul Whelan), who urges them to set sail before the ship becomes entrenched in the ice growing rapidly around them like a virus. Small problem: the remaining three members of their collective — Harry’s plummy daughter Daisy (Sarah Champion), sleazy journo Miles (Benedict Nelson) and Prentice’s fellow scientist husband Charles (Stephen Gadd) — are still out and about harvesting samples on the Arctic wastes.

As in all good sci-fi thrillers, the crew don’t heed the captain’s advice, making the call to wait it out until the others arrive. Their decision leaves them icebound. An arresting sequence ensues when Daisy, Miles and Charles struggle aboard, and they are not alone. They have schlepped back with a humungous ice cube, in which the silhouette of a ghoulish figure can just about be made out, a human form fixed in time. Spoiler alert: it’s alive!

Composer Stuart MacRae and librettist Louise Welsh are giving a clear nod to claustrophobic science fiction fare. In the show’s programme, they cite the Alien series as an influence; their staging of the well-worn plot tropes of man versus monster is a fresh take that feels new. The enduring tension of this twisty thriller is evocatively undercut by MacRae’s string-led score that marries a sinister Shostakovich-esque strum with marauding motifs akin to John Williams’ Jaws soundtrack.

There are no bum notes in the performances either, with Nelson’s disingenuous Miles a highlight; he hilariously juxtaposes smarmy moves on Daisy with frantic calls to his editor to haggle a fee for his big story. Jennifer France as Ice, the preserved prehistoric woman, is a particularly special turn. In a moving passage in the second half where she describes how she ended up trapped in the ice cube, she balletically darts around the stage, wide-eyed as she conjures the memory.

This Scottish Opera production completed its limited run at the Hackney Empire in February, and I caught the last of its fleeting series of six performances. This ephemeral set of shows was billed as a ‘world premiere’ run, and I’m optimistic that it won’t be the last we see of Anthropocene; it would be a massive shame if it’s not offered a full run in the future. That this feels like a trial run is a sad reminder of the increasingly scant resources for companies relying solely on slight public subsidy.

From France’s crafted performance to the skinned polar bear cadaver dangling ominously from the back of the stage, Anthropocene is an impeccably detailed display of haunting images crying out to be seen widely. It’s an accessible show without over-long arias, digestible for philistines like me who would usually swerve high-art for ITVbe+1.