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by on 15 October 2019



by David Greig, based on the novel by Stanisław Lem

Lyric Hammersmith Theatre, Malthouse Theatre Melbourne and the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, Lyric Hammersmith Theatre, until 2 November

Review by Matthew Grierson

Psychologist Kris Kelvin (Polly Frame) arrives on stage like the breath of reason in a madhouse. Boarding the space station in her pressure suit, she seems as alien as the planet Solaris below: Dr Snow  (Fode Simbo) treats her like one of the apparitions that have been plaguing the crew. Sure enough, Kelvin has soon thrown reason out of the window, or rather the airlock, and taken up with the spectre of her dead lover, Ray (Keegan Joyce).

(l-r) Fode Simbo & Polly Frame-SOLARIS-P-Mihaela Bodlovic

Solaris succeeds on stage because it is a ghost story, a tragic romance, a thriller, a chamber piece and even at times a comedy of manners. It doesn’t try to blind us with science fiction, and indeed takes a simple delight in such retro-futuristic flourishes as the VHS tapes used by the scientists to log their observations.

Even the impressive set, which smoothly transforms from cabin into lab, lounge and concourse, is satisfying low-tech. At rest it resembles nothing so much as the painting at contention in Art, all discreetly uneven white surfaces from which beds, benches and lockers are revealed. The curtain lowers frequently to enable these changes, and though intrusive at first this motion soon contributes to the nervous tempo of the piece, and gives the planet itself stage presence as its oceanic surface is projected on to the screen this offers. With the scenery transitions and a lighting palette ranging from clinical to 1970s movies, the characters’ moods play out on a cinematic canvas.

This makes, at times, for quite a raw experience. The oceanic planet, so far as the crew understand it, is trying to communicate with them through the medium of the ‘visitors’, manifestations of lost loved ones from their own subconscious. We only twig properly that this is going on with the sudden appearance of Ray in Kris’s bed, and her panic on waking to discover him there can be felt quite keenly. It becomes still more harrowing when she coaxes him out of the airlock to his death.

As a ghost, though, Ray continues to haunt Kris, and her attempt to hang on to her sense of scientific reason is in tension with his distress at being apart from her. The sight of his blood on the pristine white wall where he has been banging his head is a particularly shocking reminder of his physicality and agency.

(l-r) Keegan Joyce & Polly Frame-Solaris-P-Mihaela Bodlovic

Joyce’s portrayal of the visitor is affectingly primal and childlike, and he draws increasing enthusiasm and engagement from Frame’s Kris. Between them they can often turn a moment of terror into one of humour, modulating the tension with comic relief. This is seen most effectively in the lounge where the scientists attempt a formally informal soirée to get to know Ray, which plays out like an awkward dinner party (and boasts an impressive if implausible amount of wine for a space mission).

But existential dread is never far away on Solaris, and as Kris laughingly conducts a personality test on Ray he turns the tables on her sharply and tellingly. This means that the moment she leaves him alone in her cabin, and he looks falteringly around him, it is as though we the audience are now sharing and sustaining her delusion.

The contrast between the young, remembered lover and the maturer, more lonely scientist means their relationship does not always feel like a credible one. But then, as biologist Dr Sartorius (Jade Ogugua) reminds Kris, the young man is effectively her id, her unguarded sense of who she was, given physical form. There may be more the play could have done with this device dramatically, but as it is his presence provides at least some irrational rationale for Kelvin’s increasingly erratic behaviour.

It would be misleading to talk of character development as such in Solaris, because emotions happen to the two leads tidally, as the ocean outside on Solaris broils and churns. While this ups the pace of the more meditative novel on which the production is based, it also shows how thoroughly and effectively the story has been dramatised.

Against this dynamic, however, it is not so easy to gauge the characters of Snow and Sartorius, who (as Donna Grierson observed, with her own scientific eye) seem to exhibit tendencies as much as personalities. Snow is nervy, jokey and forever trying to record evidence of the visitors’ presence; Sartorious is more sceptical and dispassionate, only hinting at what she has had to endure in her two years on station. Neither Simbo nor Ogugua can be faulted on their performances, but had they had more to go on it would have enabled us more clearly to plot the fluctuations of Kris’s character.

(l-r) Hugo Weaving & Polly Frame-SOLARIS-P-Mihaela Bodlovic

For all their hard work, the cast cannot help but be upstaged by another absent presence. The sage countenance of Kris’s dead mentor Prof. Gibarian dominates the white wall of the set when she plays back the video diary he has kept. Ghosts take many different forms, and Gibarian’s is none other than screen legend Hugo Weaving. Afforded so much expressive space, he can be far more dialled down and nuanced than the rest of the cast and he turns in a compelling performance, though director Matthew Lutton works some nice interplay between projection and live actors.

In these interactions between the living and the dead lies the dramatic potential that this production successfully exploits. Despite its shortcomings Solaris, taken as a whole, is a bold theatrical experiment that proves just how disorienting an encounter with a truly alien consciousness would be.

Matthew Grierson
October 2019

Photography by Mihaela Bodlovic

From → Drama, Uncategorized

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