REVIEW: Solaris by David Greig (based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem)

Solaris by David Greig
Photo: Pia Johnson

Arriving on a space station orbiting the planet Solaris, Kris Kelvin (Leeanna Walsman) is confronted by beings who are almost human, while digging through the digital archives of Dr Gibarian (Hugo Weaving), who recently died. She must try to understand what these creatures are and what other mysteries lie on the planet below, under the roiling oceans that cover its surface.

Like the Malthouse’s other current production, Wake in Fright, David Grieg’s new play is based on a novel that has also previously been a film. In fact, Stanislaw Lem’s book has been adapted into two films, several operas and a play or two before this. It’s no surprise that it would inspire great filmmakers and playwrights to bring their own versions to life; alien entities, memory and lost loved ones are all rich elements with which to explore the themes of loneliness and otherness.

Designer Hyemi Shin creates a cool, minimalist environment that’s efficiently modular; its swiftly moving doors and sliding panels evoking a kind of futuristic haunted house. Paul Jackson’s lighting puts the characters under the harshest of fluorescent white until the station rotates through blue and red nights, as Solaris orbits two suns.

Director Matthew Lutton creates a wide-screen image, evoking his first encounter with the text – Andrei Tartovsky’s 1972 film version. But surprisingly, the only imagery on the Malthouse stage that really captures the strange allure of the original film is the interstitial appearances of Solaris’ watery expanse. Lutton’s work is usually so rich and beguiling, it’s strange to encounter a work of his that feels so prosaic.

Grieg’s script goes back to the source material, stranding us on the space station and putting us in Kris Kelvin’s shoes. Kelvin has been a man in all other versions of story; here the character is a woman, played with the right levels of inquisitiveness and slow-building horror by Walsman. Equally intriguing is Keegan Joyce, playing a recreation of Kelvin’s lover – whose slow tilt into existential horror about his own nature is compelling to watch.

This is a co-production between the Malthouse and the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh; Lutton and Grieg are these company’s respective Artistic Directors. This collaboration sees British actors Jade Ogugua and Fode Simbo playing the other human residents of the station, though the characters seem written as types more than intriguing human beings. Ogugua gets to dig a little deeper with a late monologue about monkeys and paint and human faces on paper that gets right to the heart of the mystery before them.

Science fiction on stage shouldn’t come about so rarely; characters isolated in a single space, exploring what it means to be human and the nature of existence feels deeply theatrical to me. After some slow set up, and once Kelvin starts to lose her perspective with the appearance of her lover, the show finds its orbit and speeds toward an emotional climax. There were moments late in the play where the struggle with loneliness and lost love hit me hard and it was completely unexpected when some earlier parts of the production felt so sterile and antiseptic.

Something about Solaris captured me and by the end, I didn’t want to go.