Riding high on recent previous success, Matthew Lutton and David Greig once again collaborate to present an engrossing stage adaptation of Solaris – a classic sci-fi novel which deftly explores consciousness, desire and loneliness.
Stanisław Lem’s acclaimed novel – penned in 1961 when space travel was in its infancy – has been twice adapted for silver screen, with Andrei Tarkovsky (1972) aiming to bring reflective intellectual depth to the shallow science fiction genre, while Steven Soderbergh (2002) focused on the romantic narrative of wish-fulfilment. The intrigue at the core, regardless of the setting, is the fascinating exploration of the one thing that both sustains and terrifies us – the unknown. In transferring it to the stage, the focus is pointed at humanity’s destructive nature while analysing fear and loneliness – highlighting the juxtaposition of an instinctual yearning for connection paired with the emotional risk of allowing that contact.
Psychologist Kris Kelvin (Polly Frame) is sent to a research space station orbiting the mercurial planet Solaris, where mission communications have stopped. She arrives to evasive and troubled crew members Dr Sartorius (Jade Ogugua) and Dr Snow (Fode Simbo), with news that her mentor Gibarian (Hugo Weaving) has died.
Guided by Gibarian’s video diaries proclaiming the planet is sentient, Kris soon experiences the hypnotic pool of the planet’s ocean, as well as the trauma of analysing a planet which manifests personal past traumas in material form. When former lover Ray (Keegan Joyce) appears for Kris, she is torn between rigorous scientific investigation and uncontrolled emotional abandon.
The success at the core of this beautiful piece of live theatre is the deeply resonant and often witty story of four people confined in a space (in space), struggling with past and present ghosts. Sharp interjections and fast-paced changes maintain focus but also allow the story to unravel gradually, with time to absorb the details, and a deft sprinkling of humour ensures the portrayal fully realised characters that the audience happily invest in. Like Solaris itself, the set is a puzzle with Hyemi Shin’s sleek design allowing for seamless quick changes, masked by moving Polaroid snapshot screens accompanied by Jethro Woodward’s stark wave soundscape. It’s a perfect illusion unfolding before our eyes, which beats out the big screen any day.
The stark, sterile backdrop only heightens the focus on the emotional delivery from the talented cast, who truly become absorbed in their portrayal. Greig has acknowledged the outdated patriarchal voice of the original by making Kris female, voicing opinions on the objectified – and unknown – manifestation of male Ray, which doesn’t damage the exploration of yearning at the core and may just add a splash of intrigue to the unexpected.
While all are fantastic in their roles, a mention must go to Keegan Joyce whose entity is wholly innocent yet unsettling, with manic depressive mood swings progressing the unfolding questions, attachments and realisations at the heart of the story.
As these questions unfold onstage, the philosophical and psychological drama of the narrative for the audience reminds us that humans are complex, flawed creatures that are constantly evolving but still intrinsically driven by our instinct.