Adapted by David Greig, based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem
Lyceum Theatre Company with Malthouse Theatre
Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh
When Stanislaw Lem first penned his existential Solaris in the early 1960s, it's unlikely that he would have envisioned that it would still be relevant and fascinating almost 60 years later. A key aspect of the enduring fascination of the novel comes from the effortlessly relatable themes of guilt, redemption, grief, love and loss all tied into a philosophical tale of “what if” aboard a remote space station.
In David Grieg's entrancing new stage adaptation, the mysterious events and strange non-human phenomena which surprise Dr Kris Kelvin (Polly Frame) upon her arrival at the space station have been given a modern slant, whilst still retaining a retro-20th century feel. Her strained interactions with the two surviving crew members are contrasted with the warmth and love that comes from her mysterious 'visitor', Ray (Keegan Joyce). Like each visitor, Ray is a synthetically realised embodiment from her past, conjured from her memories and dreams by Solaris, the sentient ocean planet below, something the crew have come to expect and tolerate, if not enjoy, as evidenced by a young girl who occasionally appears, peering round doors and running off.
As their interactions increase, Kris begins to feel her old feelings return and Ray simultaneously grows from a hapless, almost puppy-like version of her memory of him to a fully cognisant adult, with thoughts, feelings and the beginnings of an existential crisis, all of which is somewhat to the horror of Doctors Sartorious and Snow, whose own encounters on the station have worn their sanities to the limit.
It's impossible to discuss a theatrical adaptation of Solaris without at least making mention of the much-lauded cinematic adaptations by Tarkovsky in 1972 and Steven Soderbergh in 2002, each of which took their own path with the material, accentuating aspects of philosophical distress or human emotion in a style fitted very much to their time and the director's vision. In keeping with that cinematic tradition, this stage production is aided by a brilliantly devised aesthetic, courtesy of Hyemi Shin, whose work on the costumes evokes the casual space-wear of Alien whilst unmistakably harking back to the futurism of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Likewise, the walls of the stage are built in the classic white clinical plastic of '70s science fiction cinema, with panels that swiftly deploy or retract props, tables, beds and seats behind swift curtain-dropped scene changes. Another motif that runs throughout is the rolling waves of Solaris's oceans, projected upon the stage curtain at the beginning of the play and through longer scene changes, tied into a deep and resonant ambience.
Grieg's reimagination of Lem's novel takes the basic story and recontextualises it, in part, for our modern age, but also with a different spin on the relationships at play. Although the original genders of Kris and Ray are not essential to the story, the dynamic plays out with some difference, allowing for some comedy that might have seemed misguided if the inept and baffled Ray were a female character. It also helps that this Kris makes a far more rigid decision to fend off the romantic attentions of her recreated ex-partner, a step that slightly mitigates some mixed feelings about how quickly book and film Kris leap into bed with the visitor.
It also brings up a significant current social issue, which is touched on as Kris begins to open up to her crew mates about her past with Ray and the end of their relationship. Without getting into specifics, there is lip-service paid to a topic which could have stood to be peered into more heavily. That said, the story is about Kris, and Frame's performance of her manages to straddle a fine line in portraying her as both a believable and capable psychologist and someone making sense of an unimaginably difficult emotional load. Kris copes, but only just, reacting in ways which are never less than believable, drawing the audience into this strange place and situation and paying in hope and love. But if Kris is optimism, she's countered by the pessimism of Jade Ogugua's Dr Sartorius. She's steely-eyed, unflinching and scientific; more than that, there's a bitter callousness that shines through from a place of pain and fear that Ogugua sells perfectly without ever becoming unsympathetic.
Contrastingly, the male characters feel a little flimsy in comparison, a problem that stems largely from the source. The role of Dr Snow is by its nature both mediator and exposition and credit is due to Fode Simbo for imbuing him with enough personality to make you wish the other characters spoke to him a little more often. There are additionally the VHS tape projections of the late mission commander, Dr Gibarian, played by Hugo Weaving, with a subtle and sad intensity. It's a minor role, but one that peppers the production with thoughtful pondering.
It's Joyce's portrayal of the character of Ray that manages to be the standout. This is despite his somewhat comical early scenes. It's a wise choice of all involved to offset his alarming arrival—with Kris literally waking up with him lying half-naked in bed, cuddling her—with alternating moments of comedy and horror, giving enough sense to be wary of his unnatural presence but letting the audience know he isn't directly a threat and is someone that Kris deeply cared about once. Joyce also manages to build on his mannerisms and speech, so that he appears to grow in intelligence and self-awareness as the play continues. Despite this, we only know as much about him as Kris does, and that really is the only let-down of the piece.
That issue is that all of the characters are a little underwritten, a complaint that can again be levelled at the source material. But with this Kris, as well as Gibarian, Sartorius and Snow, we never quite get a sense of who they are beyond the present situation. It's certainly not a huge problem and, in the case of the other doctors, clearly a result of having spent two years on the station, suffering long months of mental anguish from the visitors' presence. They're strung out and their irrationality can be explained. However, Kris seems to dive straight into losing all sense of scientific sense towards the end, leading to a sudden and unconvincing 11th hour argument between the doctors that just felt rushed.
This, however, in no way removed the impact or emotion in the piece and the overall sense is one of a cathartic meditation on loss and grief worthy of Lem's novel and a credit to the Lyceum and all involved.
Reviewer: Graeme Strachan