Stanislav Lem’s 1961 novel, Solaris is famously difficult to adapt. Lem’s dense meditation on mankind’s inability to communicate has inspired TV series and movies, often to both great acclaim and confusion. The story concerns humanity’s attempt to understand the planet Solaris, a world made mostly of water, which appears have evolved a vast and strange intelligence.
With a script written by the critically acclaimed David Grieg (whose credits including Charlie and The Chocolate Factory and Dunsinane), we had very high hopes for this production, the second occasion on which Matthew Lutton’s Melbourne based Malthouse Theatre Company have brought their work to the Scottish capital. Grieg’s Edinburgh Lyceum, here making this work in collaboration with the Lyric Hammersmith, means there will be an early transfer to London this October.
Grieg has taken the essence of Lem’s novel and transformed the central narrative into a deeply personal story of isolation, identity and human connection. Greig however also manages to maintain the alien strangeness and cosmic despair of the source material. When we learned that Lutton was directing the adaptation, we were immediately intrigued: he directed the stage version of existential horror tale Picnic on Hanging Rock which appeared at the Lyceum in early 2017, and it was a note perfect take on the Australian pop culture classic. Much like Picnic, this is a tale about humans treading upon a domain they have no right to enter. It’s a more subtle parable about the perils of colonialism than that production was, with more space afforded to a philosophical discussion as to how humanity should approach any unknown environment, contrasted with the knowledge of how Imperialistically minded human beings have traditionally treated anyone or anything unfamiliar they have encountered.
The story begins with the arrival of Kris (Polly Frame), a psychologist sent to join the team of scientists observing Solaris via an orbiting space station. The existing crew are confused and in disarray; Kris’s new colleague, Snow (Fode Simbo) is initially horrified by her arrival. Kris also learns that her old mentor, Professor Gibarian (Hugo Weaving) has died, but has left recordings for Kris to watch. By night, Kris has learned Solaris’s secret. The planet sends manifestations to the crew, in Kris’s case, in the form of her old lover Ray (Keegan Joyce). Kris’s journey from revulsion, to curiosity, to joy and then a steady descent into madness is stunningly portrayed by Frame. Jade Ogugua is also very powerful as Sartorious, the only person on the station who appears to still have a shred of sanity remaining.
The direction is seamless. The transition between scenes is such that it consistently reminds us of the strangeness of the setting. As we as plunged into darkness, we see the waves of Solaris. The set, combined with clever lighting, conveys the cramped confines of the space station effortlessly. It is masterfully done throughout. It’s unusual to be able to observe so obviously the fingerprints of the director, but along with the thematic similarities to Picnic, there are aesthetic familiarities in the mechanics of the scene changes. It feels like we’re witnessing the evolution of a directorial auteur-ship, watching Lutton develop his relationship with the themes of colonialism and exoticism as he tells increasingly complex stories which speak to an ever-broader audience.
We must mention the technical accomplishment on display here. The lighting design by Paul Jackson, realised by Stephen Hawker, is a vital component of the world we’re shown. As well as providing an indication of where we are in Solaris’ time, they also speak to the mood of the characters as they occupy their space station. Essentially one set, designed by Hyemi Shin, it is only when Ray gains an understanding of who and what he is that we the audience are also allowed to see the mechanics – to observe the set changing from one location to another. It’s a clever use of the live nature of theatre, that wouldn’t create the same air of tension if we were watching on film or TV.
This is the sort of theatre that science fiction fans want to see. Stunning, intelligent and haunting, brilliantly produced and fantastically performed. This is a breath-taking adaptation and easily the most accessible to date.